Op-Ed Local View: Lincoln looks ahead on cardboard ban

Photo Credit: John Schwaninger
by JOHN SCHWANINGER August 20, 2018

If you are already frustrated with Lincoln’s cardboard ban, you might want to stay tuned.

The ban originated from Mayor Chris Beutler’s proposal in 2016 to ban paper products over a three-year period, starting with cardboard in 2018, then newspaper in 2019 and other paper products in 2020. When the proposal failed, local recycling heroes took up the task with a 6,000-signature petition to restore the original proposal for the May city ballot.

Scaling back to a cardboard-only ban probably made the revised proposal more attractive to the Lincoln City Council. But ultimately, the targeted ban aims to familiarize residents with city recycling centers and encourage the recycling of other products.

Anticipating increased volume from cardboard, the city expanded recycling drop-off sites to 25 locations and added 19 cardboard roll-offs prior to the ban. Growth in curbside recycling is expected to continue as new households seek out recycling services.

In addition, two reasons make cardboard a great target.

First, there is reliable demand for cardboard in the recycling industry, and it’s easy to spot and sort from other recyclables. Second, eliminating cardboard will help satisfy Lincoln’s goal of reducing landfill-bound refuse 20 and 30 percent per capita by 2025 and 2040, respectively, as established in the city’s 2040 Solid Waste Plan.

While the ban lends realism to these goals, cardboard accounts for less than 10 percent of landfill-bound refuse.

Perhaps cardboard is just the beginning of Beutler’s vision. After all, a cardboard ban was only the first step in his original proposal.

Beutler’s recycling initiative won’t unfold over three years, but it may yet see the light of day. The gaps between the bans make it easier to analyze the actual impact on landfill refuse and better understand the impact of each reform before taking the next step.

Any further advances in Lincoln’s recycling program depend on the outcome of the cardboard ban. However, as the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money.

Part of the ban’s original purpose was to postpone expansion of Lincoln’s landfill system. According to Donna Garden, assistant director of Public Works and Utilities, closing the Bluff Road landfill and opening a new one will cost about $26 million.

The Journal Star's Nancy Hicks put together an excellent estimate of the cost of curbside recycling to Lincoln households, pegging it at $3.2 million per year ("Cost to recycle likely high," Feb. 8). Tack on the $512,757 price tag of a recycling education contract, along with maintenance for the city’s drop-off sites, and Lincoln will be shelling out around $4 million per year for recycling reform.

At this rate, it would take less than seven years for the cost of the cardboard ban to exceed that of switching landfill sites. Factor out landfill-bound cardboard, courtesy of the ban, and we still have less than a decade.

However, future landfills will fill progressively slower as Lincoln’s recycling program continues to grow, resulting in future savings.

What else does Lincoln stand to gain from the cardboard ban?

Generally, recycling resources recovers their value. Most recyclables can’t be reused indefinitely, but trashing them prematurely is like throwing away money.

Lincoln’s recycling industry will grow as curbside recycling services and city drop-off sites further expand to accommodate more materials. Additionally, reaching out to businesses to secure markets for recycled materials could result in unprecedented returns. Imagine the impact of a cardboard agreement with Amazon, whose boxes contribute to Lincoln’s cardboard supply.

Furthermore, the U.S. recycling industry employs millions of workers. An expanded recycling industry means more local jobs. It also offers cheap material alternatives for entrepreneurs, paving the way for new local businesses and a stronger local economy.

And let’s not forget the impact on other Nebraska communities. Nearby towns may attempt to emulate the success of Lincoln’s recycling reforms. Establishing a statewide network of cheap materials can only further support Lincoln’s economy.

While these benefits are not as concrete as the costs, Lincoln could recoup its costs if it treats the cardboard ban as an investment and seriously pursues its options. Make no mistake that the ban presents an opportunity to make this city a shining example of modern, sustainable living.

John Schwaninger is a graduate student at UNL. This column was adapted from an op-ed submitted as a final project for the "Energy and the Environment: Economics and Policies" class.