With a roar and clatter, the Deffenbaugh waste truck dumps its load of crushed cardboard boxes, soup cans, plastic drink bottles, week-old World-Heralds, beer cans, cereal boxes, milk jugs and soap bottles to the concrete floor of Omaha’s Firstar Fiber.
Don’t call it trash. After the mountains of recyclables picked up in the City of Omaha’s green bin program have been sorted by the machinery and workers at Firstar, they’ll be compacted into bales weighing as much as a Volkswagen and sold for reuse — in some cases, bound for halfway around the world.
“Trust me, no one buys trash,’’ said Firstar CEO Dale Gubbels.
But that’s the way many in Omaha and Nebraska treat such recyclables today. When it comes to recycling, Nebraska is a state with low participation, lagging commitment and no solid plans for improvement.
The state’s rate of waste recycling falls far short of the national average, a recent study by the state’s recycling association found.
It’s not just a matter of failing to keep up with all those tree-huggers on the coasts. Nebraska’s recycling appears to lag all neighboring states, including Iowa. And a World-Herald analysis found that Nebraskans per capita rank fifth in the country in the amount of garbage they send to landfills.
Even in Omaha, with its free and user-friendly system in which recyclables can be left at the curb in green bins, recycling rates are low. It’s believed that a little more than half of eligible households participate. The program also is lacking in energy and momentum, total recycling tonnage having plateaued years ago.
In Omaha and across the state, millions of pounds of recyclable paper, plastic and metal cans every year are dumped in landfills. In many ways, it truly is like throwing away money. Statewide, the recycling association study calculated that Nebraskans spend $34 million a year on landfill fees to dispose of recyclable material that would have been worth $87 million on the market.
“We’ve got a long way to go,’’ Gubbels said. “From a government standpoint, other states have taken it far more seriously than Nebraska.’’
But some now say there could be hope for change.
The Nebraska State Recycling Association would like to see its study serve as a road map for state and local policymakers to update solid waste plans in ways that enhance and encourage recycling.
Recycling advocates here and nationally also say Omaha’s program is overdue for an update. They say the future of recycling in Omaha should include dumping those 18-gallon green bins in favor of lidded 65- or 95-gallon carts with wheels.
Across the country, cities that have switched to the larger-capacity, easy-hauling carts are collecting significantly more recyclables than Omaha is now.
Omaha may have missed a recent opportunity to make such a switch when city officials extended for five years the city’s waste collection contract with Deffenbaugh— a contract they say had such good financial terms it made little sense not to extend it. Since a switch to carts would require a significant overhaul of the city’s waste collection system, it could be a challenge to make major changes in Omaha’s recycling program until the extended pact expires, after 2020.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said she’s interested in exploring ways to raise recycling levels in the city. While she sees wheeled carts as more of a long-term goal, she said the city in the meantime will consider efforts to boost education and awareness of Omaha’s current program.
“We need to do a better job recycling,’’ she said. “What do we need to do to promote that?’’
Karen Bandhauer of the Recycling Partnership, an industry-funded recycling advocacy group based in Virginia, said people in Omaha and Nebraska are likely not much different from people elsewhere around the country.
About 10 to 20 percent are committed recyclers who would recycle even if they had to haul the materials themselves. Another 15 percent or so have no interest in recycling at all.
It’s the “sometimes recyclers’’ in the middle whose behavior can be influenced if you make recycling easy enough and send the right messages, Bandhauer said. But policymakers first need to make a commitment to reach and engage them.
“There is room for improvement and opportunity for growth,’’ Bandhauer said.
Recycling advocates are quick to tout the benefits of recycling.
It’s good for the environment, conserving resources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding contamination that can be associated with landfills.
It’s a benefit to taxpayers, who can save millions on landfill fees, share in profits from the sale of recyclables and put off the costly and controversial process of siting new landfills.
It’s also good for the state’s economy. The Nebraska recycling study estimated that recycling companies such as Firstar employ as many as 5,000 people across the state.
But as a matter of state policy, Nebraska has done little to try to boost recycling.
The state has no comprehensive plan to encourage recycling. It’s been more than two decades since the Legislature last enacted major legislation related to recycling and waste handling.
That 1992 law did bar yard waste from the state’s landfills and set up grant programs that spurred local recycling efforts. The law set a goal of diverting 50 percent of waste from landfills by 2002, but it did not establish any strategies to get there or even a system to measure progress.
“In Nebraska there is no strong focus or direction or strategic plan to recycle more,’’ said Carrie Hakenkamp of Waste- Cap Nebraska, a Lincoln-based nonprofit dedicated to reducing waste in the state. “We need to really formalize recycling in Nebraska.’’
To be sure, Nebraska faces some challenges when it comes to recycling.
It can be difficult to provide convenient recycling in rural communities because of low numbers of households and long distances required to transport recyclables to processors.
And landfill tip fees in Nebraska rank among the very lowest in the country, averaging about $35 per ton. They average $50 nationally, and in some places they exceed $100 per ton. Where it’s cheap to just throw things away, there’s less financial incentive to recycle.
To boost recycling, some states and cities have mandated it, barring most recyclable materials from being dumped in landfills. Others have created financial incentives for residents to recycle by charging them higher monthly fees the more garbage they throw away, known as “pay as you throw.’’
Iowa has been identified nationally as a state with a high percentage of pay-as-you-throw waste programs. Many Iowa cities created such programs in the late 1980s, when the state gave localities financial incentives to reduce their landfill tonnage by 25 percent. The deposit law that took effect in Iowa in 1979 also helps keep most beverage bottles out of landfills.
Believing Nebraska can do more, the Nebraska State Recycling Association recently completed a study on the status of recycling here.
Through a survey of recycling processors such as Omaha’s Firstar Fiber, the study calculated Nebraska’s recycling rate — the volume of recyclables and compostable material diverted from landfills compared with the total municipal waste stream — at 17 percent. That’s well below the national rate, estimated at 34 percent by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and 29 percent in a recent Columbia University study.
Nebraska’s rate was also lower than the rates the recycling association study found for each of Nebraska’s neighbors, including Iowa at 24 percent and Kansas at 32 percent.
The study’s authors caution that comparing rates across states can be tricky, because of sometimes differing definitions of recyclables and various methods of collecting data.
However, a World-Herald analysis of landfill usage also supports the notion Nebraskans aren’t good recyclers.
Not only was the 6.6 pounds of landfilled waste that Nebraska generated per person per day in 2011 higher than any neighboring state, it was exceeded only by four other states. Iowa, at 4.8 pounds per person, ranked 25th — just over the national average.
Comparing recycling efforts among cities is even more difficult, in part because of a wide variance in how city waste programs are structured. However, it’s clear Nebraska’s two largest cities are no recycling standouts.
Drive any street on trash day in Omaha and it’s quite common to see homes without a green bin at the curb. In any given week, city officials estimate only 40 percent of residents put them out. Throw in less-regular recyclers, and it’s believed just over half of Omaha residents participate at all. Overall, the curbside program is averaging about 228 pounds of recyclables per household.
In comparison, Des Moines averages 75 percent weekly participation in its curbside program. And it is collecting 310 pounds of recyclables per household — about 275 pounds when excluding glass, which is not accepted in Omaha’s curbside program.
Albuquerque, New Mexico — which, like Omaha, excludes glass — last year collected about 315 pounds per household in its curbside program, nearly 40 percent more than Omaha. Even when excluding glass, it’s not unusual for cities to average more than 350 pounds per household, according to the Recycling Partnership.
Overall, including recyclables as well as yard waste, Omaha in 2014 diverted about 21 percent of its municipal waste from the landfill. Cities with strict recycling programs — like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon — often report diverting more than 60 percent.
Lincoln’s recycling levels appear little better than Omaha’s, in part because it has no citywide curbside recycling. In fact, Lincoln has no city-provided waste collection at all; each resident is required to hire a private waste hauler. While the majority of those haulers offer recycling, they charge an extra fee for it. Many of Omaha’s suburbs operate recycling on a similar basis.
Lincoln tries to make up for its lack of curbside recyclables collection with an extensive system of uniform drop-off locations — 20 citywide compared with four in Omaha. Still, through a survey of recycling processors, Lincoln estimates its recycling rate at 22 percent, well short of the national average.
Omaha was actually once a pioneer in recycling. During the 1970s it was among the first cities in the country to initiate curbside recycling of newspaper. In 2006 Omaha was among the first in the region to adopt single-stream recycling, allowing residents the ease of putting all recyclable paper and containers into a single bin without sorting or separating.
But the Omaha program in recent years has received scant attention or focus.
Omaha routinely informs residents about its recycling program though its Wasteline newsletter, mailed to residents twice a year. But it’s been nine years since the city conducted an active promotional campaign encouraging residents to join in or recycle more.
The Recycling Partnership said it’s not unusual to see low participation and plateaued levels of recycling if a city hasn’t recently re-engaged residents through a major change in its program or stepped-up promotion.
“When there hasn’t been an influx of new energy in a while or messaging going to residents, they feel it’s not a big priority for the city,’’ Bandhauer said.
And as fewer households on the street recycle, residents feel less peer pressure to put out a bin.
“Peer pressure is significant,’’ said Jerry Powell, executive editor of a national recycling publication. “If people look and see the Joneses are doing it and look to the right and see their other neighbor is doing it, they think they don’t look good.’’
It would benefit Omaha financially if more residents recycled. The city avoids paying a $25 gate fee on every ton of waste that doesn’t go to the landfill. At current recycling levels, that amounts to some $400,000 in annual savings.
In addition, the city is supposed to receive payments of about $27 a ton from Firstar for each ton of recyclables the company processes.
That $27 figure, however, is well below the $85 per ton the city received before the recession and low oil prices produced a major plunge in recycling markets, altering the economics of recycling across the country. Even at the lower rate, Firstar has fallen $170,000 behind in its payments to the city. Gubbels said his company has been hurt by the depressed national markets.
Stothert last week endorsed a new contract with Firstar beginning in 2016 that wouldn’t require Firstar to pay anything to the city for the recyclables unless markets improve. Stothert said the new contract would be contingent on Firstar paying what it owes under the current contract.
“The price for those commodities is going down,’’ the mayor said. “We understand that.’’
City officials say the big drop in recyclables prices and other budget constraints are reasons why they have not done more to promote recycling.
They also note that Omaha is uniquely and specifically barred under state law from charging a fee for waste services. Instead, the city is required to pay for them with general tax dollars. That makes it impossible for Omaha to adopt any kind of pay-as-you-throw system.
“From the hand we are dealt, I think we are doing all right,’’ said Paul Dunn, Omaha’s recycling coordinator.
But the state recycling association said it’s time for state and local officials to flip the waste/recycle continuum on its head: Rather than emphasize disposal and then pulling from the waste stream what can be reclaimed, Nebraska should emphasize source reduction and recycling and dispose only when necessary — a philosophy often referred to as “zero waste.’’
The association also suggests revamping the state’s current grant programs to target the funds toward meeting specific recycling goals.
For example, the state could create a system of recycling hubs that could make recycling more available to rural communities. The funds could be used to start a statewide food composting program. Or the dollars could be focused on helping cities like Omaha pay for a shift to wheeled recycling carts — a change some advocates say could significantly boost recycling.
Omaha’s green bins aren’t large enough to hold what most households produce weekly, if they are recycling thoroughly. When the bins become filled, residents often just throw away other recyclables.
Carts have proven to raise levels of recycling. When North Carolina made a wholesale shift to carts over the past decade, major cities in the state saw recycling spike 10 to 68 percent.
The biggest barrier to carts: the upfront cost. At about $50 per cart, it would run about $6 million to outfit every eligible home in Omaha with one. There are also costs associated with equipping waste trucks with automated arms to lift and dump the carts.
But there can also be offsetting savings through cart use, with automation cutting manpower demands and reducing worker injuries. Raleigh, North Carolina, used manpower savings to pay off its switch to carts within four years.
Firstar for years has pushed the city to consider adopting carts. Marty Grate, who manages city waste programs in Omaha’s Public Works Department, said the city has looked at carts but has not been able to get past several issues, including coming up with the money upfront.
Grate said the city would use the time between now and 2020 to engage Omahans on what they would like to see in the city’s waste and recycling programs — and at what cost. Grate said master planning documents of the city have adopted a zero waste philosophy, though there’s a long way to go toward implementing any such plan.
“That’s a dialogue we’re going to have,’’ he said.
In the meantime, Grate said the city may look at ways to increase recycling through education and outreach. The Recycling Partnership supports peer-based programs, working with neighborhood associations or community groups to canvass door-to-door and make sure residents have the knowledge and tools they need to recycle.
Though Omaha’s program has shortcomings, Grate said, it also has strengths: Unlike most other communities in the region, it’s a free service. Any resident receiving city waste service who wants a bin — or additional bins for overflow recyclables — can pick one up from the city.
“We hear from people who are avid recyclers, (but) there are some people you can’t get to recycle no matter what you do,’’ said Nina Cudahy, a manager in Grate’s office. “We would certainly like to see higher rates.’’