Recycling is getting a lot of attention in Omaha these days. The Omaha World Herald ran an extensive story (Why is Nebraska Recycling in the Dumps?) in the Sunday, July 12 edition that summarized the challenges Omaha and Nebraska more broadly speaking have had with recycling. The key indicator is the recycling rate, which has hovered around 11% in Omaha since 2006, a figure that’s well below the national average (34%) and lagging that of the surrounding states.

Let’s not kid ourselves, managing waste streams is more difficult than most people imagine, even at the residential level. I just took my family’s trash and recycling to the curb tonight, and while doing so pondered all the different streams that leave our house in a given week (landfill, mixed recycling, glass, plastic bags, reuse items, my daughter’s to-go applesauce containers (I think she’s addicted), and compostable waste). Each one of them requires a separate staging area in our house and/or garage. It’s no wonder that I conduct a monthly educational campaign at home to ensure we’re all on the same page.

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Moody family outgoing trash and recycling. The volume in those two (yes, we have two…ssshh) green bins is more than what’s in the black trash container. I suspect if most Omahans had the opportunity and were properly educated, the same would hold true. The EPA estimates that 75% of residential trash is recyclable.

There are unquestionably advantages to recycling more, and the good news is that there are benefits that excite both fiscal conservatives and tree-hugging liberals alike. The financial savings alone are noteworthy; if Omaha improved to a mere 26% recycling rate (a very achievable figure), the city would be saving roughly $1 million per year. Certainly not chump change.

So how can Omaha improve its recycling rate? The Verdis Team spent an hour kicking around a few ideas, some of which are offered below. First, a caveat: we have not studied the situation (but would love to!). The recommendations below are based on 1) our materials management work with all of our clients, 2) our experiences as Omaha citizens, and 3) the knowledge and information we’ve gained through community involvement with efforts such as Environment Omaha. When we’re given the opportunity (the power of positive thought, right?) to really study the issue, we would most certainly refine and add to these recommendations. OK, with caveat in place, let’s get to it.

  1. Deploy larger bins with lids. Everyone acknowledges that this would have an immediate impact. Let’s make it happen. (See the July 13 OWH story for more details.) And, yes, the up-front cost ($6 million) is a bit much, but as the OWH reported on July 19, there are funding alternatives such as the Closed Loop Fund. The City should also consider the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality grant programs as sources of funding.
  1. Overhaul branding and communication. There are multiple layers to this one, so let’s bullet them out:
    • Develop a sophisticated brand around Omaha’s recycling program
    • Reboot the website
    • Develop a one-page summary that’s easy for residents to review, pass around, print and post at home
    • Offer several materials in other languages, especially Spanish (the recycling rate per capita was worst in Southeast Omaha)
    • Rename and redesign the Wasteline publication that’s mailed to residences regularly
    • Do NOT over-emphasize the 11% rate. Doing so conveys a subtle social norm that only 11% of waste can be recycled and/or only 11% of people do recycle. Rather, focus on the fact that the majority of Omahans support recycling.
    • Messaging also needs to tap into multiple motivating factors – catching everyone from liberals to conservatives
    • Ramp up the social media platform (Verdis has more “likes” on Facebook, and we generally stink at social media)
    • Invest in other awareness and media efforts such as billboards, radio, and so on
  1. Start delivering bins again. Assuming that we really do need to wait five years before the large bins with lids are deployed, the City should reinstitute the program where the current curbside bins would actually be delivered to households that request them, which was in place several years ago. (Today, citizens must go to one of six locations to pick one up.) Partnerships could be explored with neighborhood associations, schools, a nonprofit such as Keep Omaha Beautiful, and maybe even churches to facilitate the distribution process.
  1. Connecting with the binless. We kicked around a handful of ideas to engage those households that don’t have a bin today. Here are a few:
    • Employe and send SummerWorks Omaha employees door to door on trash/recycling day. Have them contact (leave flyers or little yard signs) at every residence that does not have a recycling container out. Heck, give them a truck full of bins so they can distribute as the come across households that want one.
    • Automatically provide bins to all of Omaha with an opt-out alternative. With proper notice and an effective opt-out alternative, this could work.
  1. Ramp up recycling in public spaces. The City needs to walk the talk and deploy recycling containers in public areas with a goal to achieve a 1:1 waste to recycling container ratio in the city.
  1. Make recycling mandatory. Yes, I know this is a stretch and not likely to happen, but it still would be one of the single most effective means by which to increase recycling rates. In essence, recyclables would be banned from going into the landfill.
  1. Explore pay as you throw. A strong motivator for recycling more is charging fees for trash (known as a pay-as-you-throw system). Yes, there’s some concern about it being a regressive tax, but those issues can be overcome with a more sophisticated system design.
  1. Launch a composting facility. If the ultimate goal is reduce landfill tipping fees, then diverting food waste to a large-scale composting facility will have a huge impact. This is extremely complicated, and there’s a team exploring options now, as we understand it. But the implementation of as much would make a huge difference, especially for commercial customers.
  1. Address the gap in services to apartments. Renters like to recycle too, maybe more than homeowners. It would be great to address this gap in some way.

Team Verdis had close to a dozen more ideas that I’ll leave on the shelf for now. Suffice it to say there are undoubtedly ways to improve recycling in Omaha, and we’re anxious to play a role in making that happen. Because, and let’s be honest here, it’s a little embarrassing that the city has hovered around 11% for ten years. Let’s right that ship, shall we?

Onward and upward.