Matching colorful carts sit at the end of driveways in Kenneth Kowalewski’s Bellevue neighborhood on trash day.

The 69-year-old lives in one of two neighborhoods participating in a trash pilot program run by the City of Bellevue. Since moving from Omaha a year ago, Kowalewski has been provided separate carts for trash, recyclables and yard waste.

He’s made good use of his recycling cart.

Kowalewski didn’t know about Bellevue’s 7 percent recycling rate. Or that when he throws something away in Sarpy County it makes its way all the way to a landfill in David City. He said he got in the habit of recycling years ago because it’s better for the environment.

“The less stuff you have in the landfill the better,” he said.

Bellevue officials had a similar thought.

With the recent closure of the Sarpy County landfill, there was concern in Bellevue that increased transportation costs could also mean losing control over solid waste costs. Trash is now taken to a transfer station at the old landfill in Springfield and then taken about 60 miles west to a privately owned facility. Recyclables are taken to a facility in Omaha.

Ahead of the change, the city began experimenting in November 2015 with a pilot trash program in the Castle Ridge and Southern Oaks neighborhoods.

Residents of the neighborhoods have been using three different carts for regular trash, yard waste and recyclables in a “pay as you throw” program. They were also given Hefty Energy Bags for nonrecyclable plastics like potato chip bags.

Previously, residents were given an open container for recycling and provided their own trash containers.

The majority of the residents agreed to participate, but they were not given incentives to be part of the program, city officials said.

A year and a half into the experiment, recycling rates in the two neighborhoods have tripled. While the rest of the city has a recycling rate of 7 percent, Castle Ridge and Southern Oaks now have a recycling rate of 20.8 percent.

If the 20.8 percent recycling rate could be reached citywide, officials estimate that more than 3,000 tons could be diverted annually from the landfill waste stream.

Bellevue Public Works Director Jeff Roberts and Wastewater Operations Manager Epiphany Ramos said they’re going to recommend that the City Council seek bids to implement the program citywide, possibly at next week’s council meeting. The city’s current waste contract with Papillion Sanitation is set to expire in April 2018.

City officials estimate that if they do nothing, trash hauling costs could increase 30 to 60 percent.

Based on the pilot program, Roberts and Ramos see the potential to raise the city’s recycling rate, although they stress that recycling would not be forced on anyone.

“Can I guarantee you that the rate is going to be 20 percent? I can’t,” Ramos said. “Could I guarantee you that it won’t be more than 20 percent? I can’t.”

The program has faced some criticism. Some residents said the larger containers are unsightly and too big. Others said they don’t want the program unless it saves them money and that recycling should be picked up weekly, not biweekly.

For Ramos, it’s about creating a program that’s sustainable and equitable.

And right now, the city has a one-size-fits-all system, Ramos said. A person who generates a small amount of trash is paying the same as someone with a lot of trash.

With a new program the city hopes to offer multiple sizes of containers so residents can choose which size fits best and then be charged based on the size they picked.

Other cities have also been seeking ways to upgrade waste-hauling efforts. Omaha recently completed a similar six-month pilot program testing automated trash pickup and recycling at 2,500 homes.

Like Bellevue, Omaha also saw an increase in recycling on the routes in the pilot program.

Nebraska has lagged behind other states when it comes to recycling rates, although making such comparisons can be difficult. A 2015 analysis by The World-Herald found that Nebraska throws more waste in landfills, per capita, than all but four other states. And a Nebraska Recycling Study from the same year found that the state disposes of more of its solid waste in landfills than any neighboring state.

While other states and cities have barred recyclable materials from landfills, Nebraska has always had plenty of land, which Roberts and Ramos estimate has led to lower recycling rates.

“Had land, had space — easy to throw it away,” Roberts said.

emily.nitcher@owh.com, 402-444-1192

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Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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