- First Star Recycling, the largest recycler in Nebraska, stopped accepting single-stream commercial material June 1 with the main goal of improving cardboard quality. While the company largely utilizes domestic or Mexican buyers, tighter international standards have still had an effect.
- CEO Dale Gubbels told Waste Dive that contamination rates have been as high as 40% and resulting labor costs have become too great. "It just seems foolish to continue to put that much labor into something that the value of all of it has gone down," he said, adding that now "we can actually work with the generators and the haulers to be able to rebate them for that cardboard.”
- This change has already improved incoming quality at First Star, but it's also left local service providers and businesses scrambling to adapt. Few companies were ready to make the switch by June 1. Some have been eyeing the nearby Nebraskaland MRF, or considered shipping material south to Lincoln, but neither option is seen as ideal.
First Star's change may be attracting a lot of attention, though it's technically affecting a small portion of Omaha's recycling stream.
The MRF continues to process single-stream residential material. Most multi-unit residential buildings are also still utilizing single-stream collection, in part because many of them work with a door-to-door valet service. Commercial material accounts for about 50% of First Star's tonnage overall and many accounts such as factories, distribution centers or large office buildings already separate into multiple streams.
Though for the remaining business accounts that were using single-stream, this has been a rude awakening about their recycling habits.
Hillside Solutions — a subsidiary of Gretna Sanitation — is among the companies reacting quickly. By working with customers to get additional containers, alternate collection schedules and eventually distribute custom labels from Recycle Across America, it thinks this change can be managed. Yet that won't be the case for everyone and the cost of service could go up as a result.
“That may work for some folks, but some folks may say 'hey we don’t have the space for that,'" said Brent Crampton, director of partnerships for Hillside. “In very few cases will the commercial client not have to pay more."
While some service providers see the switch to a different MRF as a way around these cost increases, local consulting firm Verdis Group has cautioned that places such as Nebraskaland may not be an equal solution.
Craig Moody, managing principal, said some larger business clients could take this as an opportunity to look more holistically at their sustainability goals. That might mean a greater emphasis on organics, for example, rather than expecting diversion of other streams alone to get them there.
“The longer-term conversations are going to happen, probably in a month or two down the road after they address the short-term issue," he said. "This is certainly forcing many of our clients to reevaluate how they were going to get to that point."
China's market disruption has forced the entire recycling industry to take a fresh look at materials management policies. While many are clamping down on contamination — and some have been forced to dispose of material — far fewer have switched collection methods yet. Nebraska's open-ended state recycling policy made it possible for First Star to take a step that would be a lot more complicated elsewhere, but could be coming in the future.
“I think others definitely should catch on," said Gubbels. "If they’re hampered by legislation their overlords need to recognize that if they truly want to treat recycling as a commodity and as a business they can no longer rely on recycling MRFs as their above-ground landfill."