Close up of recycling and trash bins in Nebraska Union, different colored slots correlating to paper, cans, plastic and landfill
Recycling and trash bins like this are prevalent around the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's city campus. Each has different colored slots for types of waste, including resin identification labels for specific types of plastic. The bins are also labeled with the phrase "Recycle Right" in an effort to encourage smart recycling. (Photo by Thomas Baker/CoJMC.)

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Everyone recognizes the phrase, but the emphasis is commonly misplaced on the “recycle” part when the first two may be more important, at least when it comes to plastic. According to a 2022 article by The Atlantic, a mere 5% of plastic is actually recycled, meaning the vast majority is dumped in landfills along with other garbage. 

In Nebraska, that percentage is much harder to track. Nebraska Recycling Council Director Haley Nolde said a formal waste council study has not been conducted since 2009, so there isn’t a way to accurately estimate exactly how much plastic is being recycled.

“Plastic is being recycled in the state; it’s just hard to quantify,” Nolde said. “Kind of like everything else in the state; it’s a little hard to get to the bottom of what’s truly going on.”

What’s going wrong? Why isn’t plastic being recycled effectively? Well, it boils down to two main reasons: lack of cost-effectiveness and too many different versions of plastic. 

Plastic is very expensive to collect, sort, transport, and then successfully recycle the material for profit, so corporations will choose a more affordable option, which is always to make new plastic material. In particular, where small communities are already struggling with affording a hauling service for recycling, they may choose to stick with simpler materials like cardboard and paper.

The lack of options for recycling is a major problem in Nebraska, particularly anywhere outside of the two major cities, Lincoln and Omaha. A 2021 study by the Nebraska Recycling Council found that only 56.7% of communities in South Central and Western Nebraska provided recycling options for their residents. Ninety-seven communities responded to that question, but only 44 answered whether they required residents to separate materials, of which 68% indicated that they did. 

In communities that did offer recycling options, residents living in areas of Western Nebraska and the panhandle had to travel 30 miles on average to get to a recycling center or drop-off container.

With many areas in the state being so rural, it makes it difficult for recycling, Nolde said.

“So it’s just naturally harder and more difficult to recycle because you have to pay more for someone to come get it,” Nolde said. But Nolde re-emphasizes that the issue is not motivation.

“People want to recycle, they want to do the right thing; it’s just a conversation of a lot of times it’s not feasible.”

The other main reason for problems is there are simply too many versions of plastic created by different sources; therefore, the thousands of types of plastic material are nearly impossible to be recycled together. There are different chemical additives for almost every product with plastic, making it very difficult to narrow down the pieces that can be recycled where.

Large corporations that rely on the production of plastic have been pushing the false narrative of the material being recyclable for decades. They have purposefully misled the American public into supporting the idea of recycling to shift their focus away from the damage single-use plastics are causing the environment. Former President of the Society of the Plastics Industry Larry Thomas told NPR, “if the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” 

One of the first tricks performed by the SPI under Thomas was introducing a symbol people may have seen many times before, something that looks similar to a recycle logo but does not actually mean it is recyclable. It is called a resin identification code, of which there are seven types.

The standard typically taken are number one and two plastics, says Nolde, as those are the most traditional, easiest to recycle and usually spotted the easiest.

“When you get into the other numbers of plastic,” Nolde said. “It’s not so much a standard recycling process but a different process because all these chemical structures of plastic are so different. Even though it doesn’t look like it or feel like it, the chemical makeup differs a lot.”

Omaha-based Firstar Fiber is trying to help with those harder-to-recycle RIN plastics. They assist with the Hefty EnergyBag program, an orange trash bag that residents can put hard-to-recycle plastics in alongside their curbside recycling. 

Firstar also received a grant last year from the Alliance to End Plastic Waste to work on creating plastic lumber out of hard-to-recycle plastic materials. 

The Nebraska Recycling Council surveyed Nebraska farmers on grain bags and large white tarps that store grain in fields to control the environment for an extended period of time. Nolde said respondents admitted to often burying or burning the tarps, recognizing that it’s not the right thing to do, but they just don’t have an easy solution.

Nolde said the Nebraska Recycling Council is partnering with Firstar Fiber, and their stake is the educational and informational gathering side. One solution they offer is encouraging places that sell these grain bags to also provide a collection program so that when customers return to buy new bags, they can drop off their used ones and set up a system that people can then haul them off to Firstar Fiber.

At the last conference, Firstar was very close to launching the program that makes plastic lumber because they had just gotten the equipment in to start. The process is sorting and shredding all of the material and then making plastic pellets out of the compacted material. 

“Every single day, I hear the next, newest, greatest idea that’s gonna save the world with waste management,” Nolde said. “It’s really no one single thing that needs to happen. e need to consolidate materials so it’s more easily recyclable. We need to make messaging more standardized so that people know what can be recycled, get rid of all these insane plastics that can’t be recycled, and then also the re-use of materials. Everyone has a stake in the game to make things better, but no one piece is the end-all-be-all.”

I am a senior at UNL with a double major in Sports Media & Communication and Broadcast Production.