February 17, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Helmets fastened, Leslie Wells and Chase King climb on their bikes and take off for a brisk ride through downtown Omaha on a crisp afternoon. For these avid cyclists though, today’s ride isn’t about recreation. It’s about recycling.

Earlier in the day, the two men collected hundreds of glass and plastic bottles, cups, containers, cardboard, cans, and other items from an Old Market coffee shop and a downtown restaurant. They loaded and secured each trash bag, box, and bin stuffed with recyclables onto a pull-behind bicycle trailer hitched to a Surly Pugsley bike with big, fat tires.

On today’s route, King rides the bike pulling the trailer, while Wells follows on his own bicycle. After pedaling their way to a recycling dumpster in a parking lot near Heartland of America Park, they unload the nearly 300-pound haul. Everything but the glass, which is biked to a collection site at 26th and Douglas streets, gets tossed into the giant bin.

Two days later, they’ll be it again—putting the cycle in recycle. Their efforts are part of COMMONgood Recycling, one of several programs operated by local nonprofit group inCOMMON Community Development.

Wells, program director at inCOMMON and a longtime cycling enthusiast, created and coordinates the pedal-powered service, which is offered Monday and Saturday to business owners in the downtown and midtown areas. Its primary goals are to assist small businesses, employ residents seeking entry-level work, and help protect the environment.

The idea came about after Wells noticed two of his friends, who own Omaha Bicycle Co. in Benson, using their bikes to recycle. It inspired him to take a similar approach to recycling at Aromas Coffeehouse in the Old Market, where he worked at the time.

At first, he used a handmade wooden cart attached to his bike to haul recyclables from Aromas but later switched to a solid aluminum trailer because it was stronger and could handle heavier loads. Over time, Wells thought other downtown businesses might be interested in his method of recycling. And if he could get enough customers to sign up and pay a small fee for the service, it could create job opportunities for low-income residents served by inCOMMON, where Wells volunteered.

His plan got a boost in May when inCOMMON was awarded a $25,000 grant from State Farm to help develop the program. Wells joined inCOMMON’s staff full time to expand and oversee the effort.

What started with one client has now grown to more than a dozen participating businesses, including Flatiron Cafe, Block 16, Aromas Coffeehouse, Kaneko, Table Grace Cafe, Elevate, Greengo Coffee & Deli, Bench, Davis Companies, CO2 Apartments, and others. Businesses sign up and pay a monthly fee of $40 for weekly pickup. Other pricing options, including one-time service, are also available.

Previously, many of those businesses were simply discarding recyclable materials in the trash. “A service like this is important because it allows small businesses to start doing the right thing by recycling and still afford to hit their bottom line by reducing their waste fee,” Wells says.

For riders, who are either unemployed or underemployed, COMMONgood Recycling allows them to make money, Wells says, and it gives those who want to transition back into the workforce an opportunity to acquire job experience, training, and multiple skills to include on their résumés.

Christian Gray, executive director of inCOMMON Community Development, says the recycling project fits in nicely with the organization’s overall mission to strengthen struggling neighborhoods and alleviate poverty at its root.

The nonprofit group, which in October celebrated the grand opening of its Park Ave Commons community center at 1340 Park Ave., provides a variety of services for neighborhood residents, including GED instruction, preventative and emergency services, community building, English language lessons, job readiness, and other resources.

King is among the riders employed by COMMONgood Recycling as an independent contractor.

Since June, he’s helped collect, sort, and haul recyclables to drop-off sites around town. He sees the service as a way to help promote a greener community and reduce the amount of trash that goes into landfills.

“Landfills are full enough already,” King says.

In the coming year, Wells hopes to add more riders, bikes, and customers, while continuing to raise recycling awareness. He also wants to expand the service to include other areas of the city, including Benson.