Environmental change starts at the curb

Tuesday is my least favorite day in Cleveland Heights because it is trash day. I’m not opposed to trash, but I detest the remnants left over each week from our failed waste and recycling programs.

I walk my dog several times a week, and Tuesdays are frustrating. Instead of enjoying the walk through my beautiful neighborhood, I maneuver a gauntlet of chicken bones, pizza boxes, candy wrappers and unknown, unrecognizable food remnants, hoping my dog does not digest any of this dangerous smorgasbord. 

Take, for instance, my walk just a few weeks back. In a three-house stretch I encountered two chicken bones, a spilled glue container, an open takeout box and its contents, and dozens of pieces of paper and plastic. Fortunately, thanks to some quick redirection, my dog didn’t snack on these unwanted treats.

Anecdotes aside, Cleveland Heights needs to reexamine its waste and recycling programs. While our community represents much that is creative and innovative in government, we fall short in this area. Our trash collection is unsanitary, unsafe and downright barbaric.

Cleveland Heights should project an image of safety and sanitation. Instead, on trash nights we project an image of countless trash bags, multiple piles of recycling and piles of unwanted and discarded house remnants. On trash pick-up days we just project an image of filth. 

Residents of Cleveland Heights can put anything in the trash, and as much as they want. We get small items, large items, open containers, food products, paint, oil, pet refuse, and so on, discarded on trash day. While offering this service is beneficial to some, it unfairly penalizes those who take trash removal and sustainability seriously. 

Few citizens know it, but Cleveland Heights makes a profit from recycling. However, our system encourages people to discard paper and plastic instead of recycling them. This has a double negative impact. Not only are we collecting trash that could be recycled, we also fail to benefit from the sale of that waste.

Progressive communities, such as Boulder, Colo., have highlighted the path to better waste and recycling. In Boulder, residences are given choices on their waste removal and are charged an associated rate. Each residence chooses either a 32-gallon, 64-gallon or 96-gallon trash container with wheels. Rates are based on the size of the container and those who generate less garbage save money. 

As an added incentive, Boulder offers free disposal of unlimited amounts of one-stream recycling. Residences are given recycling bins and, if a residence requires more than one bin, they can be purchased for just $1 per month.

On top of this, the city provides 32-gallon compost bins for yard and food waste, and collects leaf bags and bundled branches. 

Boulder’s actions have led to a movement in the community to reduce the city’s environmental footprint. Having experienced Boulder firsthand, I was amazed at how this small change has made the entire community rally around improving the environment and notice each person’s individual impact. Residents are now making more conscious decisions on the products they purchase and use in their households. They routinely purchase items that they know can be recycled and avoid items that take up space in their garbage container.

Trash removal is a source of pride in Boulder and the community is able to make financial returns on the sale of their excessive recycling haul using a public/private model of waste removal. 

Cleveland Heights could do all of this—it must begin at City Hall. Our community should embrace a citywide strategy to reduce waste and increase recycling. We need to give businesses, particularly our restaurants, incentives to use recyclable materials. We also need to mandate trash removal and limit the amount of garbage that can be placed on the curb each week.

These measures are easy to implement but require political will and personal fortitude. While not everyone will embrace these changes, our creative citizenry in Cleveland Heights should strongly support this type of bold move. 

Now is the time for our community to take on a better system for waste and recycling. Proactive solutions, such as Boulder’s, are leading to more environmentally friendly communities throughout the country.

Toby Rittner is a member of the FutureHeights board of directors and ran for Cleveland Heights City Council in 2009.

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Volume 3, Issue 3, Posted 1:37 PM, 01.26.2010