Update on Omaha’s Commercial Recycling

As you may have read, First Star Recycling announced that as of June 1st, Omaha’s single-stream commercial recycling would – for the most part – end and be replaced by a newly defined dual stream system (sources: OWH, Waste Dive, Verdis). However, confusion lingered among haulers, our customers, and other recycling facilities as to what these changes entailed and how to go about managing them. On Wednesday, June 13th, the Green Omaha Coalition and the Omaha Area Higher Education Sustainability Alliance (OAHESA) hosted a stakeholder meeting where we facilitated an open discussion of these changes. (Link to presentation from the forum here.)

First, let’s clear up any residual confusion. It was previously announced that the initial transition would be to a dual stream system with one stream of fibers (cardboard & paper) and a second stream of containers (plastics and metals). This is no longer the case. At the forum, Dale Gubbels, President of First Star, announced that the new dual stream system would be transitioning to the following:

  1. Stream #1: cardboard only (< 5% paper would be allowed)
  2. Stream #2: plastics (#1 – 7), paper, paperboard, aluminum/metal, and aseptics

The notable change is that First Star prefers paper and paperboard (think cereal boxes) be in the second stream instead of with cardboard. Acceptable materials are listed on the First Star website.

An important change that has remained consistent is that recyclables will no longer be accepted in plastic bags at First Star. Custodial staff will need to empty recyclable materials loose into compactors, dumpsters, and toters. A benefit of this change is that it will push custodial crews to review the contents of the bag before putting them into a container, which gives them an opportunity to identify and divert contamination (typically food and liquid waste) to the trash.

What Does this Mean for You?

Most organizations we talk to and work with are still sifting their way through some of these changes. While they’ve made short-term changes to their waste management practices, many are still examining what their long-term plans are to achieve their sustainability goals.

Short-Term Plans

If you haven’t transitioned to something other than a single-stream system, you should do so soon. However, if you’re only able to stay at one stream for now, examine which materials comprise the majority of your stream and go that direction. Most organizations are going to a cardboard stream—it’s their highest volume material and it has the most value (highest rebate).

However, deciding to go to a cardboard only stream has its disadvantages. Cardboard can be difficult to collect across an organization instead of in one area (like a receiving dock). Removing your current single-stream recycling program completely may indicate to staff and visitors that you are no longer recycling at all, which has the potential for negative feedback. We regularly survey our clients’ employees to assess their sustainability concerns, and recycling is almost always at the top of the list.

Communication is key during transitions like this. It is critical to update signage, work directly with custodial staff, and use internal channels such as emails and newsletters to get the word out. We’ve found that when recycling is done well, it is an excellent employee engagement tool. When not done well, recycling can have the opposite effect—disengagement. We can help you craft a communication campaign that leverages this transition to engage your employees.

Finally, working with your hauler to determine timing, costs, containers, and other details is also important in the short-term. Then it’s time to start planning for the long-term.

 Long-Term Plans

Now is an opportune time to do a waste and recycling assessment. The results will tell you what comprises your outgoing materials, and at what volumes or weights. With that information in hand, you can make an informed decision about which streams should be prioritized for diversion, and you can identify the best course of action moving forward. We view these market changes as an excellent time to examine whether an organics stream (food, paper towels, etc.) should be a higher priority.

Once you determine which streams should be the highest priorities, you can then start examining options with haulers. Not all haulers are the same. Their prices and services can vary greatly.

New containers for additional streams may also be necessary. Having consistent containers throughout the property is important. As is color-coding. Aligning color-coding with the broader world of recycling is really helpful, especially if you have the general public onsite often. We recommend:

  • Black = landfill
  • Light blue = cardboard
  • Dark blue = plastic, aluminum, paper, paperboard, aseptic
  • Green = organics

Signage must also be clear and consistent. Consider looking to Recycle Across America for signage. The same principles apply here – we want everyone to see the same signs no matter where they go. As stressed before, be sure to provide ongoing updates to employees on which materials go in which bins and spend quality time with the custodial staff to ensure they’re firing on all cylinders.

A common barrier to adding new recycling streams is start-up funding for new containers. If you’re in Nebraska, take a look at the funding available from the Nebraska Recycling Council. They have a great grant program for these exact challenges.

There’s obviously much more to it than I’ve outlined above, but this should be enough to get you started. When you get stuck, give us a call! We have experience in waste and recycling audits, communication plans, hauler negotiations and selection, bin deployment, and employee engagement – all actions to help you with your recycling transition.

Let’s Go Bigger

One of the primary reasons why First Star moved away from its single-stream commercial program was because contamination was way too high. At the June 13 forum, an attendee suggested a community-wide education campaign to address this issue, and we couldn’t agree more. We successfully worked on a similar program with the City of Lincoln, and we’re already exploring the possibility of doing something similar in Omaha.

Onward and upward!

More blog posts