Two men load recyclables into a large trailer, which is hitched to a truck.
John Weare, left, and Lonnie Grant, right, lift an empty black container back onto one of Keep Alliance Beautiful's recycling trailers in the summer of 2021. Photo courtesy John Weare/Keep Alliance Beautiful.

By: Ramey Vachal, Abigail Carrera, Shawn Hellwege and Devin Hinkson

At the panhandle’s largest sewing shop, Pat’s Creative, employees are saving their waste. The materials they’re saving range from twine used on the farm to the plastic that fabrics come wrapped in and are stored in containers on-site. Co-owner Sonya Buskirk said the materials they’re collecting would typically go straight to a landfill if they were picked up by the local waste company.

“We had so much cardboard and recyclables that they only take to landfills and they won’t separate anything. So everything was just going to landfills,” Buskirk said. 

The containers are provided by Keep Alliance Beautiful, which then collects the materials every two weeks. Buskirk said this service has made the process of recycling easier in her community of Hemingford.

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Containers holding recyclables from Pat’s Creative. The shop sits on a family farm in the village of Hemingford. The farm, the sewing shop and a tree planting business are based out of the area and all save materials for pickup. Photo courtesy Sonya Buskirk.

“(Keep Alliance Beautiful) does an absolutely excellent job trying to make it simple for people to recycle. They get gold stars for that,” Buskirk said. 

Keep Alliance Beautiful is only a piece of a new recycling model being implemented across the state. Named hub and spoke, this system is aimed at increasing access to recycling for rural communities. This comes at a time when Nebraska’s recycling rate has some room for improvement.

According to a 2015 study from the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, Nebraska’s recycling rate is around 17%. In comparison, the national recycling rate is just above 35%. The state ranks 40th nationally in terms of recycling rate not including cardboard. On average, Nebraskans recycle 160,000 tons of material each year, according to Eunomia

Former Nebraska Recycling Council program director Leah Meyer said the main roadblock to increasing recycling in the state isn’t a lack of interest. She found in areas where recycling was available, 80% of residents were highly motivated or somewhat motivated to recycle. 

“In Nebraska, it’s access. I don’t think it’s a lack of desire,” Meyer said.

HOW IT WORKS

The hub and spoke model is at the forefront of the effort to make recycling more accessible. Within the model, recycled material moves along a route, otherwise known as a spoke, in order to reach a central processor – a hub. Meyer said this process is vital for smaller communities that may not generate large amounts of waste.

“They can’t send their materials to a processing facility when they’re only collecting, say, four to eight cubic yards of material a month. And so having a hub model, having a location to send it to, having an outlet, is really their only option to be able to recycle,” Meyer said.

John Weare is a resident of Alliance and works at the Keep Alliance Beautiful recycling center, which processed 775,000 pounds of material last year. It serves as a hub for a large area in the northwest part of the state, where centers are scarce. 

“North of us, there’s really no recycling service and in the panhandle there really isn’t much of anything at all,” Weare said.

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Deb Henzler pulls a full container off of Keep Alliance Beautiful’s Hemingford-based trailer at the recycling center this past summer. Photo courtesy John Weare/Keep Alliance Beautiful.

In some areas, Keep Alliance Beautiful doesn’t have the resources to offer pickup services. In those cases, Weare has seen people come as far as an hour away to deliver the recyclables they’ve been saving for months.

“We’ve had people from the Sandhills come with horse trailers full of things where it’s been, months where they’ve been collecting recycling and bringing it to us,” Weare said. 

Once smaller communities send their recyclables to a hub, employees at the hub use equipment to sort and bale the materials. They are then sent to a materials processing facility and eventually end up in an end market.

Keep Keith County Beautiful executive director Chris Vail said this process is intuitive for many reasons.

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This graphic shows an overview of the hub and spoke model from beginning to end. Graphic by Abigail Carrera/CoJOMC.

“The idea of moving stuff through the hub and spoke programs, I think number one, is the most logistical way to go about it. And number two, it’s cost-effective because you’re working with a number of different resources to put those monies together to bring it all in one place,” Vail said. 

By combining materials from multiple smaller communities, hub and spoke aims to offset the individual costs of sending recyclables to a processing facility. 

“The more you do it, the less it should cost,” Vail said. 

Keep Alliance Beautiful is a part of the Western Nebraska Regional Recycling program, which launched its hub and spoke model in 2016. The program is one of a handful of hub and spoke systems operating state and nation-wide. Although models in different regions may differ slightly, they have the same basic design. Meyer said she’s found that hubs serving around 10,000 residents are each recycling around 400 tons of material annually. She said this makes her think about communities that don’t have access to a hub.

“It’s easy to extrapolate how many tons are actually going into the landfill without having that kind of outlet,” Meyer said. 

FUNDING & GRANTS

Key elements to this model are investments in the equipment at hub facilities and funding for containers and collection trailers at spokes, Meyer said. Additional costs are associated with transportation of material to the hub processors. 

Vail said Nebraska in particular provides many opportunities to expand recycling with the available funds. One of the largest sources of funds for hub and spoke programs comes from the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, also known as NDEE. Vail said these grants fund a wide range of expenses, from employee salaries to compactors and trucks. 

“What’s really great about it is you can ask them for anything, and they will most likely give you the grant funds, because truly, it’s not that competitive,” Vail said. “It’s not like we’re in California, where we have 9,000 people vying for these kinds of grants.”

Some of this funding is generated from tipping fees charged for waste disposal in landfills. Fifty-percent of this fee is put toward N-D-E-E’s Waste Reduction and Recycling Grants Program. Nebraska’s tipping fee rate is $1.25 per ton, significantly lower than the national average, which is $55.36 per ton according to the Environmental Research and Education Foundation

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A conveyor belt at Firstar Fiber sorts through recyclables. Photo courtesy Danielle Easdale/Firstar Fiber.

One facility investing in new equipment is Firstar Fiber in Omaha. The facility works as a main hub for many parts of the state, as smaller hubs may not have the equipment to fully process materials and may send their recyclables to Firstar for further processing. Firstar is the largest materials recovery facility, or MRF, in the state. Firstar director of sales and marketing Danielle Easdale said the company takes a unique approach to waste.

“Wastes are a resource. If we can take that piece of waste, put it  back into the economic stream, you’re not only creating jobs, you’re benefiting the planet, you’re benefiting the state of Nebraska in terms of manufacturing,” Easdale said.

Materials recovery facilities work by taking recyclable material, separating it into streams and baling it up to be sent to end mills, where it will be made into new products. Easdale said Firstar uses new technologies to streamline its process, from optical and robotic sorting equipment to overhead magnets for steel products. 

The machinery doesn’t come cheap. NDEE provided a grant for $174,705 to Firstar for equipment in 2021. NDEE grants supervisor Aaron Miller said unique projects are more likely to stand out and receive funds.

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An employee at Firstar Fiber manually pulls out items that may have been missed by mechanical sorters. Photo courtesy Danielle Easdale/Firstar Fiber.

“The more innovative or more different, maybe outside the box thinking that they have, the more likely they are to get funded,” Miller said.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

Another prong of the Western Nebraska Regional Recycling program’s hub and spoke model is a focus on education. Vail said the largest grant she receives is for public education, which goes hand and hand with recycling efforts.

“If we teach people how to recycle right and they learn it from a very early age, they will do it forever. It’s basically behavior modification,” Vail said. 

Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy environmental assistance coordinator Erik Waiss said education could be the key to making Nebraskans prioritize recycling and rethink their waste.

“When they become the adults who are paying the bill, they’re going to be more likely to want to pay more to have that waste better managed,” Waiss said.

Education on how to recycle right is one way to help prevent contamination at facilities such as the Lexington recycling center. Meyer, the former Nebraska Recycling Council program director, said around 30% of materials being dropped off at the center can’t be recycled and are sent to a landfill. Meyer said spreading information on how to correctly use resources could increase efficiency. 

“(The city) might be able to get a little bit more return on the product but also spend less time cleaning up the contamination,” Meyer said.

LOOKING FORWARD

Meyer said the greatest challenge is labor costs. Meanwhile, hubs are having difficulties with investment in equipment. Meyer said that collaboration between counties is imperative.

“Having everyone participate actually makes it more effective for everyone,” Meyer said.

Meyer said individuals should recognize their own habits and keep track of what their local representatives are doing. Investment in programs like hub and spoke would help communities overcome the challenges she’s seen.

“I would just call for residents to hold their public policymakers to a higher standard with our solid waste collection, as well as to look to their own households,” Meyer said.

On Nov. 17, Vail met with members of Nebraska’s U.S. congressional delegation at a virtual event coordinated by Keep America Beautiful. She urged them to put infrastructure funding towards recycling efforts.

“I got to talk to them about what we’re doing here in Nebraska and really get them to champion from the federal level how we bring EPA money into our state,” Vail said.

Vail said as residents of an agricultural state, Nebraskans value the land. Sonya Buskirk said she sees mindfulness in her fellow residents.

“We’re agricultural farmers and tree planners, so we do anything we can to keep our lands clean and cared for for the next generation,” Buskirk said.