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Columbus News

Posted on: June 9, 2023

Community's free recycling program plagued by contamination issues


Imagine emptying community recycling containers Christmas morning only to be greeted by a bag of human feces and a bunch of glass that pops up unexpectedly and cuts your face near your eye.

 Yeah, that happened to a Keep Columbus Beautiful employee on Dec. 25, 2022.

“There was a bag of poop in there,” Keep Columbus Beautiful Executive Director Vanessa Oceguera said, confirming that it was not animal waste. “(The employee) tipped over the trailer and was not expecting the glass in one of the containers.”

Using grants and with support from Platte County and the City of Columbus, KCB launched a free recycling program for area residents back in 2021 in which two orange trailers were set up in different spots around town. The idea was to once again give residents a local place where for free they could properly dispose of recyclable items, such as aluminum cans, milk jugs, steel and tin cans, as well as various kinds of plastics, in the clearly marked designated spaces.

But the trailers have had to be continually relocated since the program launched in an attempt to curb massive contamination issues that have most recently reached a tipping point. KCB employees who regularly haul the trailers approximately 40 miles altogether to and from the Colfax County Recycling Facility in Schuyler have spent hours sorting through and disposing of many items that flat out don’t belong. Besides human feces and glass, they’ve found toasters, an air-conditioning unit, phones, drywall, nails and plastic hay wrap, among many other things.

“This was supposed to be a very simple and sustainable program. We were supposed to be able to bring the trailers (to Schuyler), unload them, make sure things go to the right area (in the facility) and not really have to worry so much about sorting it,” Oceguera said. “We shouldn’t have to worry about looking for feces, air conditioners, toasters, phones, Styrofoam (plastic foam) and stuff like that.”

The trash that has been collected from the Columbus recycling trailers has resulted in a significant increase in Keep Schuyler Beautiful’s garbage bill at the facility. Oceguera, who also works part-time for Keep Schuyler Beautiful, said she’s heard concern from KSB officials about the contamination issues in Columbus.

Oceguera said KCB, an affiliate of Keep American Beautiful that focuses on public education and volunteer service related to quality-of-life environmental issues, has a mission of providing education and programs on litter reduction and recycling for the beautification of the community. But the nonprofit may have to consider stopping the free recycling program if things can’t change.

That would follow on the heels of St. Bonaventure Elementary School having to recently do away with its longstanding recycling program through Applegate GreenFiber which was open to the community and enabled the school to receive some money back for items recycled. Like KCB, school leaders found the program being abused.

“Unfortunately, what was happening was people were taking advantage of it and dumping their trash in it,” Principal Cheryl Zoucha said. “We would have to dumpster dive and clean out the bins to the point it became too much.”

Items found included animal carcasses, children’s basketball hoops, furniture and meat trimmings.

“We have to pay to get all this stuff dumped,” Zoucha said, noting people dumping their non-recyclable trash just created all sorts of problems. “Having to give up those funds and recycling for the community was very difficult. The whole situation is very disappointing because it was a great program. We just wish people used it the right way.”

City Public Works Director Chuck Sliva said he has been talking with AppleGate Green Fiber. The company and the City are working on finding a place in town where the bins could be placed to give residents an option to properly recycle phone books, newspapers, office paper, paper bags, cereal boxes, tissue, beer and soda boxes, as well as cardboard and magazines.

But in light of the recycling contamination issues in town, Sliva said the bins would be in a secure location, closed at night and only open for limited hours when they can be monitored during the day.

Oceguera made the trek to Schuyler on June 7th with one of the orange trailers. She picked it up at its current location outside of Mike Greiner’s Furniture and Mattress Warehouse along Howard Boulevard and drove it out to the Colfax County Recycling Facility hoping for the best.

She then spent more than an hour emptying each container and sorting through things. In some cases, she found herself sorting through different kinds of plastics she knew belonged in different spots. She said that’s OK, as it’s just a matter of people becoming more educated on how recycling works.

But she found numerous plastic bags stuffed into the various compartments which required the bag to be disposed of separately (items can’t be recycled from within plastic bags) and then put the various bottles and cans into the right spot. She subsequently got rid of all the various pieces of trash that were not recyclable. Although frustrating to find items that had no business being in a recycle trailer, she was glad to not find an air-conditioning unit this time around.

Oceguera said the KCB employee who got injured by the shattered glass last Christmas is doing well, but stressed those kinds of things should never happen. The organization has the trailer set up outside of Greiner’s and plans to bring back the second unit in a new location downtown south of the railroad tracks. The hope is people will choose to use them right and remember they’re there as a courtesy.

When they’re misused and contaminated, all people are doing is creating more work for others and hindering recycling efforts, she noted. There are options for curbside recycling in town, though that is a paid service. Oceguera said she’s hopeful people will be more aware of how they use the recycling trailers so that the free program can continue to be an option.

“If you don’t want to recycle, that’s fine. Just throw it away at home. Nobody is forcing anyone to use these trailers. It’s all optional,” Oceguera said. “I don’t know what else we can do. We can’t stand at the trailer and babysit every person who comes through to make sure they’re recycling correctly.”

(ABOUT THE PHOTO: Keep Columbus Beautiful Executive Director Vanessa Oceguera sorts through items found in the free recycling trailer on June 7th after bringing it to the Colfax County Recycling Facility in Schuyler.)

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