Trash talk

If there’s one subject that gets Cleveland Heights residents riled up, it’s trash collection. The pros and cons of plastic bags vs. wheeled carts are hotly debated on social media. CH City Council members frequently find themselves confronted by constituents with strong opinions.

At an Oct. 22 meeting of council’s Safety and Municipal Services Committee, City Manager Tanisha Briley noted this is the third time during her five-year tenure that the city has considered major changes to its handling of refuse and recycling. About two dozen residents squeezed into city hall’s executive conference room to hear what staff and council members had to say, and to make their concerns known.

Cleveland Heights Capital Projects Supervisor Joe Kickel and Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District Executive Director Diane Bickett made informative presentations. [Kickel’s slides are posted on the Refuse page at; a link to the audio recording of the meeting is on the website’s 2018 Agendas and Minutes page.]

Following questions from council members and residents, Michael Ungar, council member and committee chair, proposed creating a citizens’ task force to study the options presented. We have space here to summarize and comment on only a few points that the task force will be asked to consider.

Change is coming to the way we process our refuse, whether we like it or not. Recycling centers will no longer accept items in plastic bags because the bags jam their sorting machines. Due to rapidly diminishing global markets for recyclable materials, recycling is poised to go from generating revenue to actually costing cities money. Nevertheless, it is an essential part of managing solid waste.

A shift from bagging recyclables to setting them out in wheeled carts will almost inevitably require conversion from manual to automated collection. Instead of leaving the truck to pick up the bags and toss them in, the driver operates a mechanical arm that lifts the carts and empties them. If recyclable collection is automated, it makes sense that refuse collection would be as well. One effect of such a change would be far fewer injuries to city employees, and lower workers’ compensation premiums for the city.

Bickett reported that 38 of the 59 municipalities in Cuyahoga County have automated refuse and recycling pickup. Thirty-nine of 59 contract with private haulers (most of which use automated collection); others have kept the service in-house.

Cleveland Heights’ fleet of refuse and recycling trucks has aged past the point where retrofitting is cost-effective. Automated trucks are $350,000 each. Grants and loans are available to help cities purchase automated equipment, including 96-gallon wheeled trash carts and 64-gallon recycling carts for all households.

One of Kickel’s slides raised questions for us. Titled “Cost comparison,” it consists of a table showing, among other things, the total cost of refuse and recycling per housing unit per year, for Cleveland Heights and eight other Cuyahoga County communities (Bay Village, Euclid, Fairview Park, Garfield Heights, North Olmsted, Parma, Parma Heights and Westlake). Cross-referencing this slide with materials Bickett provided showed that all but Cleveland Heights have outsourced their refuse collection to private companies. And—surprise!—Cleveland Heights’ costs are the highest on the chart. Could this comparison be laying the groundwork for another privatization move, not unlike what happened to the building department two years ago?

Automating trash collection does not have to mean privatizing it. Lakewood, Lyndhurst, Beachwood, Solon and Brookpark are just a few cities in the county that have automated while maintaining the service in-house. We hope the task force will insist on studying those communities’ experiences carefully as well.

If you feel strongly about this essential city service, indicate your interest in the citizens’ refuse task force by contacting Ungar, at, as soon as possible.

Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

Carla Rautenberg is a writer, activist and lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, and has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at

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Volume 11, Issue 12, Posted 4:39 PM, 11.29.2018