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Will Cleveland recycling scale to super heights?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/17/14 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Stuff

Cleveland declares 2014 the Year of Zero Waste, and focuses on what can be done about a sub-10% residential recycling rate.

<br />Image from Brink City: Green n tha ghetto issue twoFlea to the CLEV<br />Upcycled furniture produced by Yellow Door Goods. Image: The Cleveland Flea and Suzuran Photography.<br />Cleveland placed 40 new recycling bins around downtown in February 2014.<br />Rid All Green Partnership recycled vacant land near Kinsman for a half-dozen high hoop houses growing fresh veggies and tilapia.

Cleveland is drawing on its Division of Waste, Cuyahoga County’s Solid Waste District, and advocates who think waste is misunderstood and should be re-cast as materials in an “upcycle” economy.

Upcyclers such as A Piece of Cleveland and Yellow Door Goods have been harvesting old wood from some of the 10,000 homes slated for demolition. ZeroLandfill Cleveland and Akron are getting architectural cast offs in the hands of artists and product makers. The Cleveland Botanical Garden and Cleveland Museum of Natural History are showing visitors how to compost.

Recycling was first embraced by industry (which has an impressive 75% recycling rate in Cuyahoga). But, upcycling is a consumer-driven idea being tapped by product makers reclaiming materials like wood and steel, which in turn drives places like The Cleveland Flea, a pop-up market in a vacant storefront on St. Clair Avenue that hosts a long list of vendors.

These boutique efforts could be helped with a base of support among Cleveland’s 390,000 residents for recycling. Some are already participating in a scraper economy—picking steel from treelawns on trash day. But only 10% of Clevelanders “put it out there” in the big blue bins that the city has invested $2 million annually in a commitment to bring back its curbside recycling. 

Cleveland Division of Waste Director Randall Scott confirms that 70% of the homes in Cleveland today have 64-gallon “single stream” recycling bins. The city plans to have bins to 95% of residences by 2015 (5% of homes without bins are multi-family buildings without driveways). Single stream means that Clevelanders can commingle plastics (#1-7), glass, paper and even Tetra Paks into a single blue bin on wheels for ease of use.

How does Cleveland grow its base of recyclers to draw even with the region’s leader, Pepper Pike, which recycles 75%, or Cleveland Heights which recycles 65%?

“The clear-cut answer is education,” says Scott. “We need to continue to get our message out and continue to expand.”

The community standard is 25%, he adds, but that depends on how it reports. Cleveland doesn’t report its yard waste where some communities do, so those numbers aren’t always apples to apples.

Cleveland’s purchase of 28 fully automated trucks with robotic arms gives it the capacity to capture as much curbside recycling as residents can throw, Scott says. In the public sphere, the city added 40 recycling bins around downtown last week, adding to its existing 131 drop-off locations. The Cleveland Office of Sustainability is working on a plan to expand recycling in the neighborhoods, he says.

Damian Forshe of Rid All Green Partnership, a melange of urban agriculture and green education targeted to youth, has a good idea of what breaks through the apathy toward recycling.

Forshe is more than the owner of an exterminating company. He’s a driving force behind a massive urban farm on a vacant lot in Kinsman. And he publishes “Green ‘n tha ghetto,” a series of graphic novels that weave together green themes with real-life figures from the streets of Cleveland. The first six issues have featured recycling super heroes, healthy food growers, and a guns for rakes and hoes exchange. Meeting kids where they are is a big part of turning young minds on to green things, he says.

“They relate to it because the story line is real, and, at the same time a graphic novel,” he says.

Greening even the most disadvantaged community is not a fantasy, says Forshe who has doggedly pursued the likes of George Washington Carver Elementary, East Tech and Carl Lewis Stokes STEM School to bring students on field trips to the farm. They also run essay contests on green themes and winners are drawn in the comics.

“We worked with the Sewer District and wrote a story line with students doing the projects and made two of the girls super heroes in the comic book. When we presented them to the students, one broke down crying. She couldn’t believe it.”

The local flavor adds much needed authenticity.

“We’re showing them the whole farm to table movement, or about how to recycle,” he says. “It’s drawn from places and people they can see down in the city. And then we bring them to the farm and they understand biology and science.

“Everybody can be a star, a superhero, if you do the work to rid the community of its woes.”

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