Omaha’s waste and recycling programs have been in the spotlight lately as new proposals from Waste Management to reform the current collection methods draw public attention. These changes could not come sooner, with the current state of Omaha’s recycling program lagging behind all neighboring states. A recent World-Herald analysis found that Nebraskans rank fifth in the country in the amount of garbage they send to landfills. Omaha has hovered around a diversion rate (% of total materials recycled) of 11% for many years, which is discouragingly low (the national average is 34%) and well below the EPA’s estimate that 75% of residential trash is recyclable.

We can do better, and it is time for change at all levels of the system.

Waste Management recently submitted proposals to overhaul waste collection in Omaha. Mayor Jean Stothert requested these proposals to address “frequent complaints about the current level of service and plan for the future.” However, overhauling Omaha’s waste and recycling programs is a complicated matter, and the decision our leadership makes must carefully consider many alternatives and criteria.

In our work we see first hand the challenges and opportunities our clients have related to waste and recycling. The reality is that it is far more complicated than most people realize. Residences and businesses alike obtain, use, and need to discard many different types of materials, and most people want a reliable, simple process.

In order to improve Omaha’s recycling rate, there are a few key things that should be considered. First, start at the source. Omahans need to do a better job of considering what they are obtaining at the point of purchase. The best way to limit the volume of outgoing waste is to not obtain those materials in the first place. A major missing piece of both Waste Management proposals is any programming to decrease the amount of waste/recycling/yard waste that is produced. Less waste means less cost to taxpayers to manage the waste. MAPA’s Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan (ISWMP) recommends the City hire or contract out a Source Reduction Specialist to do just this—reduce waste generation.

Yard waste in particular is a material that retains a great amount of value, and Omahans should be encouraged to consider ways to keep yard waste on their property. This can be done in the form of mulching grass clippings, composting leaves and grass clippings at home, and using some landscaping materials for other purposes (art, fencing, walking sticks, nature nooks, etc.). The City’s own policy directs City staff to mulch leaves and grass clippings on City property. Shouldn’t we all do the same?

Next, the addition of larger, lidded recycling containers is good and important. Several studies have shown that such a system will result in higher recycling rates, which is something Omaha desperately needs.

Third, one of the more contentious issues in Waste Management’s proposals relates to the plan to mix all landscaping materials with regular trash and send it all to the landfill, effectively shuttering the City’s Oma-Gro composting operation. Claims have been made that sending landscaping materials to the landfill, which is where some electricity is generated by burning methane gas, is better environmentally than composting. These claims have not been peer-reviewed and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, MAPA’s ISWMP, and the Environmental Protection Agency share a common waste hierarchy (see below) wherein composting is a better use of organic waste than energy capture. The City does not have enough information to determine which approach is environmentally superior. Further analysis is warranted.

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Finally, both Waste Management proposals effectively limit the amount of waste that a household can have picked up on a weekly basis. Such a limit is worthwhile, especially for regular landfill-bound trash, but there will have to be a strong communication and education campaign to help change how much waste Omahans generate. In one proposal option, residents are limited to five bags or cans (32-gallon maximum each) of trash and 4 bags or cans of yard waste for a total of nine containers (288 gallons) each week. This is the same as the current limit on trash containers, and it is too high. Frankly, residents should be pushed a bit to lower the amount of waste they send to the landfill.

In summary, there are some good aspects of the proposals, but there remain some significant questions that must be considered before moving forward. For example, how much sooner will our landfill close with the additional volume of yard waste? What will it cost taxpayers to build a new landfill further from the city? What is the environmental cost with longer driving distances? And what are the clear, calculated environmental impacts of all scenarios?

We hope that the City invests time and money into gathering all the right information before making a decision on a such an important and complex issue.