Cleveland Doubles Down on Mandatory Recycling

Despite criticism, all city households will have garbage bins with tracking devices by 2015

Courtesy Cleveland Dept. of Waste Disposal

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story cited several figures relating to the number of residents in Cleveland who have already received or will receive new garbage and recycling bins. Those figures reflect the number of households, not individual residents.

When Cleveland officials announced plans last year to distribute new garbage cans affixed with bar codes and radio frequency chips so they could track the amount of recyclable material collected from residential homes, the public response was at best uneven.

The libertarian magazine Reason cited the plan as indicative of the city’s future as a ghost town: Why would the struggling Cuyahoga County seat latch onto a recycling program that would cost as much as $2.5 million? “I am willing to go out on a ledge and say this is not the sort of activity that will bring Cleveland's mojo back,” wrote editor Nick Gillespie.

Another feature of the recycling program would be its power to levy citations against residents who didn’t recycle enough. Using the radio frequency chips, employees of the city’s Waste Collection Department would visit homes with inactive recycling bins and sift through their garbage. If the garbage contained more than 10 percent recyclable materials, offenders would be fined $100. Heftier fines of $250 or $500 could be attached to claims that households threw away excessive amounts of trash or too much yard waste. Plain Dealer columnist Phillip Morris said the plan sounded like the “garbage Gestapo.”

But the city wasn’t backing down.

Ron Owens, commissioner of the Department of Waste Disposal in Cleveland, told a non-columnist at the Plain Dealer in September last year that the plan could save the city major cash. Cleveland spends $30 per ton sending trash to landfills but earns $26 per recycled ton. The city sent 220,000 tons of garbage to landfills in 2009. Nearly 6,000 tons of recyclables were collected.

By this time last year, 15,000 households were already using the new garbage and recycling cans as a test to see if the program could work citywide.

Apparently it showed promise. Just weeks ago, 25,000 Cleveland households began receiving new collection bins – one 64-gallon blue bin per household for recyclables and a 96-gallon black bin for trash.

“This is a mandatory program,” Owens says. “We’re able to make some additional revenue and we can save money by not putting trash into a landfill.”

Owens says the program starts with a three-month window without enforcement to “give residents a chance to learn how the carts work.”

Which means no fines until January.

Beyond the presumed landfill savings and the potential to collect fines, Owens says the program will also cut back on worker’s compensation claims.

With a manual trash pickup system, he explains, two workers are on the back of the truck and they hoist 20 or 25 tons of trash every day.

“With the old system, someone was injured every other day,” he says. “With this automated program, people are injured every other month.”

An automated arm picks up the trash with the new system and the city only staffs one person per truck.

Furthermore, Owens says, the initial test group showed that the automated system was more efficient; an average of 500 cans were picked up every day under the manual system while the automated system picks up as many as 1,000.

So is the plan a job killer? Owens says no, because it’s part of a major expansion effort.

This year, 25,000 households will receive new bins. The city hopes to add 25,000 households annually and to have the city’s roughly 150,000 households covered by 2015.

According to data from the U.S. Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll, Ohio governments cut 725 jobs between 2000 and 2010 in the state’s various solid waste management sectors alone. As recently as May, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson announced 466 government layoffs including 79 public works employees.

So in some ways Owens sees this new program – and the city’s willingness to fund it – as a kind of municipal comeback. The new curbside recycling program is the first in Cleveland since 2003 when budget constraints halted the city’s previous program.

“We think this will show that Cleveland’s headed in the right direction,” Owens says.

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