UNO waste program to collect hard-to-recycle plastics

Photo courtesy Sarah Burke

Grant Sobetski

The University of Nebraska at Omaha in collaboration with Hefty just made it easier to reduce waste, one orange bag at a time.

The Hefty Energy Bag program at UNO is a part of a citywide effort to curtail the amount of waste put in the city’s landfill in Bennington by diverting some of it, particularly plastics that are difficult to recycle such as candy and food packaging, to cement plants for incineration.

“I think it’d be good. It increases your range of what you can recycle and what doesn’t get thrown away,” said freshman Trent Meister.

Six locations across campus will have labeled orange bins for students to use: the Dr. C.C. and Mabel L. Criss Library, the Milo Bail Student Center, the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center, Mammel Hall, the Peter Kiewit Institute and the H & K Building.

The waste that can be placed in these recovery bins include plastic cutlery and dishes, potato chip bags, foam to-go boxes, single-serve coffee pods, microwave bags, plastic straws and stirrers, among many other products.

Although the program does divert some waste from the landfills, it does not help with the university’s zero waste goal by 2050, said UNO’s Sustainability Coordinator Sarah Burke, M.S.

“We only have it in seven locations because the current model that they have … doesn’t help us achieve our zero waste goal. Zero waste means no incineration,” Burke said. “Right now, it still has an end life. It will stop at one point – once it gets burned.”

There are plans at Hefty to transition the collected waste for use in the making of synthetic oils, a process known as pyrolysis, for use as fuel or even the making of new plastic.

“This is brand new technology that they’re playing with to make it work. All their small-scale tests have shown that they can bring it back to a synthetic oil,” Burke said. “Say in two years if they get to the pyrolysis, we will probably push the program even harder because it helps with our zero waste goal and it is a full circle product then.”

Until then, students can save their qualifying waste in a container and dump it into the containers around campus or buy their own Hefty EnergyBags and, once full, place them in their dormitory recovery containers.

The collected waste can burn hotter, for longer, with less greenhouse gas emissions than coal, which is traditionally used for the extensive heating in the cement-making process, said Burke.

On the other hand, there may be other emissions from the burning waste that have not been accounted for and Omaha’s landfill has about a 100-year cap – a relatively long period of time compared to those in California, which are near full capacity.

“Is it an ideal use right now? No,” said Burke. “If we could go straight to pyrolysis and have it turned into a synthetic oil so we don’t have to mine for crude oil to create these plastics it’d be great; we’re not there yet.”

For Meister though, he sees the program as another improvement in the sustainability efforts at UNO.

“UNO is already pretty good with the recycling. They have it all over,” Meister said. “If you add another [container] there, … I think it’d be good.”