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Early one beautiful Saturday morning in May, Leslie Wells hooked up a small handmade cart to a bicycle with monster-truck-style tires and headed to Kaneko, at 11th and Jones street, which had been the setting of the annual Big Omaha conference the night before.
After picking up a trash bag of recyclables, he rounded the corner and headed to the loading dock behind Aromas Coffeehouse, where he added piles of cardboard to his load.
Fighting the wind, Wells pedaled to the recycling center near ConAgra and unloaded the bottles and cardboard, completing a run of Omaha's first and, so far, only recycling business that relies on bicycles rather than trucks.
The new venture, Common Good Recycling, is run by inCommon, a local nonprofit that aims to strengthen struggling neighborhoods and fight poverty.
The hope is that it will provide four jobs — one manager position and three part-time positions — to people re-entering the workforce after being homeless, for example, or recovering from substance abuse. At the same time Common Good Recycling will also provide a needed service downtown, said Jeff Spiehs, programming director for inCommon.
“It sort of reinforces the values and mission of inCommon,” Spiehs said.
Last month, Common Good Recycling received a $25,000 State Farm Neighborhood Assist grant, one of 40 awarded through Facebook voting. Common Good came in 25th out of thousands of applicants. The money will help buy bikes, build carts and teach individuals to build their own carts. Both grants and money generated through the recycling program will be used to pay the program's employees.
Wells, the program coordinator for Common Good Recycling, and Spiehs hope to have riders hired and trained and carts built by the end of the year, if not sooner. And when they do, customers will be waiting.
Around a half-dozen businesses have signed on so far, Wells said. The service will cost $40 a month with weekly pickup, or $10 a month and $10 per pickup.
Wells, a longtime bicycle commuter, came up with the idea to bring bicyle-powered recyling service to Omaha, and he's spent the past year fine-tuning the plan.
His first foray into bicycle recycling was when he helped friends who worked at a downtown bike shop haul cardboard boxes to a recycling center — the shop lacked recycling service, so his friends took care of it themselves. He then noticed that Aromas didn't have a recycling service, either. Talking to downtown business owners, he realized that many were either throwing their recyclables away or taking them home. It didn't take much research for Wells to learn why.
“It's really simple: The service isn't provided,” said Paul Kulik, owner and chef at the Boiler Room, a Old Market restaurant.
Kulik bikes to work, as do many of his employees. Others walk. That made it difficult to transport recyclables to centers..
The lack of a recycling service frustrated Kulik, who purchases much of his restaurant's food from local farmers. Kulik also composts organic waste, which farmers pick up when they make deliveries, and he values sustainability and repurposing old things. The Boiler Room restaurant, after all, was once a literal boiler room.
“It just seems really kind of silly that we can't do a better job disposing of (recyclables),” he said.
He and Wells talked about this. Wells sought out other downtown business owners. He also talked to a friend from the bike community who had made several carts out of reclaimed materials — wood, metal, wire and discarded compact discs, which he used as reflectors. Wells figured he could make something similar, adapting it for the recycling business starting to take shape in his mind.
So he visited Bench, a downtown workshop people can rent by the hour. With help and advice from workshop owners Nick and Ben Petersen, Wells started making his own cart. When it was finished, he used it to haul Aromas recyclables. He's been doing that for more than a year.
Wells has drawn some stares as he pedals downtown, pulling a load of recyclables. And it's true that bicycle-powered recycling pick-up isn't exactly common. But as Wells and Spiehs researched the idea, they found that certain neighborhoods in Cambridge, Mass., offer bicycle recycling pickup. Auburn University and the University of Texas also have bicycle recycling programs in place, too, Spiehs said.
The use bicycles for hauling all sorts of cargo has grown in popularity over the past four or five years, said Robert Alverson of the California-based cargo bike company Xtracycle.
Alverson has worked with moving and delivery businesses that rely on bikes, and with a building inspector who uses a bicycle to tote around tools including a ladder. He also knows of a bike-powered salmon delivery business.
It's hard to pinpoint a single reason more businesses are hauling cargo with bikes, but Alverson said he suspected rising fuel costs and the growing trend toward eco-consciousness have helped. So too, has the relatively low cost of a bike, as opposed to a truck or van. And anytime a businesses uses a bike to transport recycling, ladders or salmon, people notice. In some parts of the country, hauling cargo with a bike is a normal sight. The movement is beginning to hit critical mass.
“It's not just one guy with one kooky thing,” Alverson said.
In Omaha, though, bike recycling is still unchartered territory. So Wells has met with Kulik and other business owners to discuss logistics — effective bin shape and size, sorting and pickup frequency. Test runs helped Wells see how his bike handled different loads.
This is the first time Wells has organized something on this scale, though the 30-year-old, also a guitarist, has put together benefit concerts. Since he moved downtown three years ago, he's relied on a relatively slow-moving bicycle to get around. As a result, he's come to know almost everyone in the neighborhood, or at least it feels that way.
“You actually have time to make out the wrinkles in people's faces and put a little skin on people around you,” he said.
And some of those people happen to need recycling.
“We're very optimistic that something like this can work,” Kulik said. “Like anything else when it comes to recycling, the trick is just make it part of your natural day, to not have to invest a lot of active time and energy. Leslie's going to invest a lot of time and energy, but he's doing it so we don't have to.”
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