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Corrugated cardboard recycling doubles after ban, but not bringing in expected revenue

Published: Apr. 8, 2021 at 9:03 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Three years into a change that required corrugated cardboard to stay out of the landfill, the City of Lincoln said record numbers are being recycled year after year. They said the benefits of this have already been seen, but the city thought they’d be making money from the ban, but so far that hasn’t happened.

The ban calls for Lincoln residents to pull clean, dry cardboard out of their trashcans and recycle it.

“The ban is great for us,” Donna Garden, Assistant Director of Public Works and Utilities, said. “It conserves natural resources, saves space in the landfill and helps Lincoln reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Because the ban itself is at the landfill, that’s where the city can measure the difference. Every few years, the city studies the contents of the landfill. In 2017, before the ban, cardboard made up 9.4% of the city’s waste. In 2018, a year after the ban, cardboard made up just 2.4%.

It’s improved even more since then. In the year 2017-2018, the city picked up 2,265 tons of corrugated cardboard from its recycling sites across town. In 2019-2020, the city picked up 3,627 tons.

Garden said she’s pleased with how compliance has progressed.

“Cardboard is made form trees and if we recycle it we no longer need to use those natural resources and trees are a great way to sequester carbon and get carbon out of the atmosphere,” Garden said.

Once the cardboard is out of the landfill, it goes to Firstar Fiber, a processing firm in Omaha.

“It doesn’t stay with us long, we bale it up and send out to paper mills across the country,” Dale Gubbels, CEO of Firstar Fiber Recycling said.

When the ban launched, the city was hoping to make an income off cardboard, which isn’t happening right now. Gubbels said just after the ban was put in place, many countries like China stopped buying U.S. cardboard. This made it difficult to earn a profit off the cardboard, and though it is improving now, it’s still not likely the city will start making enough money to offset costs.

“Trying to turn what has become a chaotic mix of material into something that’s a resource again is a very costly proposition,” Gubbels said.

Right now, the city spends about $430,000 a year to pay processors to sort of contaminated cardboard and to remove cardboard from the landfill.

“We try and keep that cost low,” Garden said. “So it’s important for the community to recycle right in terms of what they take to the recycling because the more contamination we have to remove, the more we pay.”

The other cost is about $1 million annually to pickup the cardboard from the recycling sites.

Garden said these costs are worth it.

“We saved more than 239,000 trees by recycling cardboard the first year, we think that’s worth it,” Garden said. “We also think it’s worth it not to use our landfill space. Nobody wants a new landfill and hopefully we won’t have to do that for many, many years.”

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