News3 News Now Investigators


Omaha is recycling more with larger bins

More trash getting tossed in with Omaha's recycling, too
Posted at 6:00 PM, Nov 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-04 23:55:43-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — For years, wind toppled the little green bins that Omaha residents like Jessica Freedman stacked and stuffed with their recyclables.

In late 2019, the city replaced those open-air bins with covered carts that are six times bigger. The new carts hold 96 gallons instead of 18. And the lid keeps out the rain and snow.

“It’s fantastic,” Freedman said of the green-lidded cart in her Morton Meadows driveway, paper bag in hand. “Because you know what doesn’t happen? It doesn’t blow down the street.”

The city expected Omaha residents to recycle at least 20% more paper, plastic and cans after providing larger carts from the city's latest trash-hauling contract with FCC Environmental.

Public Works and the city's recycling processor say Omahans are recycling about 50% more material with the larger bins.

Freedman says she is recycling more, in part because the city's new carts hold more, and because her kids got interested. Cans, paper, clear plastics and cardboard from online orders.

"In our house, we have a spot," she said for recycling, showing us a pull-out shelf in a kitchen cabinet by the door. "We have two containers that these paper bags fit into ...and we just come out and dump it whenever it’s full," she said.

Firstar Fiber, a company that sifts through Omaha's recycling, has noticed the difference. On average, it is sorting through 100-140 tons of recyclables a day, company officials said.

"A ton, keep in mind, weighs about a Volkswagen bug," said Dale Gubbels, CEO of Firstar Fiber.

Firstar combs through what people put in those larger recycling carts, separates items into piles, then presses them into bulk packages of commodities and sells them.

Companies buy the recycled material to manufacture something new. Gubbels says he sends most of what Omaha recycles to plants in nearby states, to places like Wisconsin and Iowa.

This month, the Omaha City Council will consider a new five-year contract making Firstar the sole sorter of Omaha recycling. The company has more than 100 employees in Omaha and Lincoln.

Public Works says it expects to spend about $2 million a year on recycling from the curb and drop-off sites for larger items and items that aren't recycled curbside, like glass.

Omaha spends over $20 million a year on garbage collection.

"The way we bid the contract, when (recycling) markets are good, we will pay less," said Jim Theiler, assistant director of Public Works. "If the markets go bad, we will pay a little bit more."

Experts say the domestic market for recyclables has rebounded since China stopped buying recycled material from the States.

"The market has improved quite a bit, largely because America is starting to invest in the need for recycling," Gubbels said.

The biggest change in what we recycle locally has been the shift from mixed paper, including newspaper, to cardboard. It's part of what recycling experts call the "Amazon effect."

Other increases from 2006 to 2021 include recycling more plastic bottles and containers, plus more aluminum cans. The city paid for a study before seeking its latest bids for recycling.

People are also throwing more trash into the bigger bins, hoping that it can be recycled, a phenomenon called "wish-cycling." About 10% to 18% of what people try to recycle ends up separated and driven to the landfill.

Among the items tossed in that can't be recycled, the 3 News Now Investigators saw workers at Firstar pulling out machine parts, garden hoses, kitty litter, yard waste, plastic film and plastic bags.

People who want to know what can be recycled at the curb or at one of the city's drop-off sites should visit the city's solid waste program website and click the recycling tab.

Omaha residents who want to recycle more have some options. They can buy the Hefty Energy Bag at local stores. It lets you recycle more complicated plastics. People can also recycle plastic grocery bags at many local grocery stores.

"I know it can be confusing," Gubbels said of recycling. "Some simple things to keep in mind. Keep it clean. If it’s saturated with oil, or your milk jug still has milk in it or your water bottle still has water in it, those aren’t recyclable. When in doubt, probably leave it out."

Download our apps today for all of our latest coverage.

Get the latest news and weather delivered straight to your inbox