Nic Nealy, Northeast Conservation Director

About a year ago we hosted our first tour of the Firstar Fiber recycling facility in Omaha, Nebraska. CEO Dale Gubbels guided us through the facility and taught us about the process behind running a recycling facility. Since then, we have hosted tours at various recycling facilities around the state, and each time I gain a better understanding of the process and learn more about the issues facing the recycling industry.

Dale Gubbels (center) walks two community members through a section of Firstar Fiber’s recycling facility.

The biggest take-away, which is simple but not necessarily obvious, is that recycling is just like any other industry. Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) like Firstar Fiber take a raw material, add value to it (sort and neatly package), and resell it to end-users who manufacture with it. This means that the process is subject to the market and since China recently stopped accepting plastics from the United States, the domestic market is flooded.

In order for MRFs to make money they must produce higher quality material which can easily be contaminated. Items like food, plastics bags and miscellaneous garbage can reduce the quality or even cause whole loads of recycled material to be trashed. Another issue that recycling facilities are running into is finding end-users. Because the United States did not originally need an economic infrastructure when shipping materials overseas, finding end-users has become difficult. When a recycling facility cannot find an end-user, many of the recovered plastics are used for pyrolysis, which is the process that breaks down the plastic polymers into fuel, or they are used as a combustion source.

I know that we can do better and I see this as an incredible opportunity for Nebraska to be a national leader in effective recycling. Nebraska is centrally located and has access to major freeways and railways that can be utilized for distribution of materials or final products. Firstar Fiber is already a regional leader in tons of material processed and in the technology they employ. Nebraska hosts one of the few end-users of material, GreenFiber, which is based out of Norfolk. They turn recovered paper into high-quality home insulation. By investing in companies and technologies like these, we can create a healthier recycling industry that can employ many Nebraskans.

GreenFiber’s home insulation.

Much of what needs to happen is large-scale reform but there are steps that you, as an individual, can take. Here are a few practices you can adopt that will help make recycling more economically and environmentally sustainable:

  1. Make sure you only place accepted recyclables in bins – this reduces contamination which could lead to a spoiled batch. You can learn more about what can and cannot be recycled in Omaha here.
  2. Buy things that are made of recycled materials – this plays a crucial role in completing the cycle.
  3. Try to reuse items and buy less. While recycling is very important, it still requires a lot of energy and even recyclable materials are not 100% recyclable. Simply reducing the amount you consume will have a drastic impact on waste.