Officials: End results more profitable despite public complaints about Omaha recycling

There are also questions about where the recycling goes — and if it is actually being recycled.
There is good news at the end of the recycling rainbow.
Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 11:05 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The start of the recycling cycle can be ugly. It’s what we see, recycling bins overflowing and trash dumped around the centers intended to keep junk out of the landfill that could otherwise be recycled.

But when people show up and see there is no room for what they want to recycle, they leave it anyway.

”If a site is full and you can travel to the next site, or wait until the next day for our contractor to empty that container,” please do, said Jim Kee, department quality control manager at Omaha Public Works. “They do empty those containers just about seven days a week, they’re even out there on Sundays getting them emptied, so it does take some time.”

There are also questions about where the recycling goes, and if it is actually being, well, recycled. As it turns out, the end game for Omaha is increasingly successful, and profitable, something that just wasn’t possible 20 years ago. In their first year of a $2.4 million dollar contract with the city to handle the processing of the city’s mixed recyclables, First Star Recycling and Firstar Fiber CEO Dale Gubbels said improved technology and the demand for keeping profits on American soil are paying off.

“There’s been a lot of investments made in the infrastructure to make sure the material gets recycled,” Gubbels said. “The economics are such that if you take these materials as an alternative to using the Virgin or raw materials, it saves quite a bit of energy... The paper mills, the plastic operations, the metals, all of it, they find that using these reclaimed materials, they lower their energy costs.”

The road to profitability is multi-faceted. First, machines had to be created to help better recognize sorting, which has improved dramatically.

“It goes through several different phases of recycling,” Kee said. “They’re gonna pull out different types of material, cardboard’s gonna go one direction, paper’s gonna go another, your plastics, your metal, they’re gonna go to a different direction, and so as all that material is sorted, it’ll be baled, and then it’ll go to different end markets, it’ll go to a different mill if it’s paper or cardboard, and then they turn that material into something that will be further recycled.”

Paper, for example, is a moneymaker for recycling in Omaha. While there aren’t paper mills locally, they can sell to markets in Kansas City, Oklahoma, and Minnesota for a solid return. Those are relationships the Midwest has long enjoyed when they didn’t have the ease of shipping containers out to Asia for someone else to deal with, as often happened in larger port-based markets.

The investments nationally in technology to recycle plastics, something technologically nearly impossible a short time ago, is paying off.

120th and Maple Recycling drop off
120th and Maple Recycling drop off(PHOTO: WOWT)

“Right now the demand is exceeding the supply on a lot of these materials,” Gubbels said. “If the plastic industry, for example, had its way, everybody complains about plastics not being recycled, they can’t get enough. they want more.”

Gubbels said taking full advantage of developing technology requires a legislative push for something called “extended producer responsibility,” requiring manufacturers to make what can be recycled.

”But it has to be everyone’s responsibility,” Gubbels said. “The producers are the manufacturers of brands, they have a lot to say in what gets recycled but it comes down to there isn’t any one of us that doesn’t have a role in this.”

As for the front end of the process, more and more Americans, and those in Omaha specifically, are doing their part. In 2021, nearly 25,000 tons were recycled here.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “the recycling rate has increased from less than 7 percent in 1960 to the current rate of 32 percent.” The EPA reports that recycling and reuse accounts for 681,000 jobs and nearly $38 billion in wages in the U.S. each year.

One of several companies contracted to deliver the contents of those recycling bins to First Star Recycling is FCC Environmental Services.

So, yes, your recycling is paying off. Yes, we’re keeping tons and tons out of the landfills, which is a good thing.

It works as long as we all remember that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as long as it’s in the right bin. After all, we still teach our kids: reduce, reuse, recycle.

”We’ve created a recycling program that accepts a lot of different materials, and so that makes it easier on the consumers, so a lot of people skip over those first two Rs, the reduce and reuse,” Kee said. “So when you’re making your product selection, are you choosing a product that has less material that either has to be recycled or put to waste or could you reuse that packaging?”

“When you look at different generations, for instance, a glass jar was reused,” Kee said. “They may put buttons or nails or something like that as storage, whereas now it’s a lot easier to maybe just drop that off at one of our recycling sites. So a lot of people overlook those first two Rs that we grew up with, in terms of reducing what our potential waste can be, or reusing those products rather than going right to recycle.”

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