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Keep Columbus Beautiful recently got a great shot in the arm.

The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality just announced the recipients of this year’s annual Litter Reduction and Recycling Grant program. A total of 49 grants worth a total of $1.3 million were awarded, and the Columbus-based nonprofit was given $33,543 to help fund its public education program to inform the community about litter reduction and recycling.

In recent years, the organization has struggled with funding. The state grant provides the bulk of its operating budget every year. In 2017, the grant amount was $29,082. Last year, the organization requested $35,000, receiving less than half of the asking amount.

“So when we only get half funded, it has a huge impact," Executive Director Vanessa Oceguera said. “So it’s been a couple of hard years.”

With its funding lessened, Oceguera said the organization only had enough to “pay to keep the door open.” Rent, personnel, insurance and utilities were all it was able to afford. This was due to the Legislature removing a large chunk of money from the NDEQ grant program in recent years. But this year, Oceguera said the group was only $3,000 short of what was asked - a vast improvement.

Although Columbus was lucky this year, other organizations were not. This year, the NDEQ received $2.7 million in requests and funded less than half that amount.

Mary Peschel serves on the board of directors for Keep Schuyler Beautiful. This year, the organization will receive $23,884 from the NDEQ grant - only half of what was requested. The funds are used to cover the operating expenses for the Colfax County Recycling Facility.

“We’ve been managing on a shoestring for many years, so you have to adapt your operation to what you have,” Peschel said. “So it’s a very difficult time right now.”

Not only has state funding been cut, but the return investment on recycling has also decreased, something Peschel refers to as “the double whammy.” Because of the price decrease in recycled materials, some recycling centers have considered closing.

Last week, it was reported in The Banner-Press, a sister paper of The Columbus Telegram, that David City has discussed shutting down its recycling center due to cost. David City City Council Member Kevin Hotovy said at the last city council meeting that the The David City Recycling Center has been losing $15,000 annually.

The center serves as a drop-off point for cardboard, newspaper, magazines and plastics to be collected and then shipped to First Star Recycling in Omaha. Street Foreman Chris Kroesing said the city now only gets $20 per ton for its cardboard from First Star.

“I get recycling, I get it,” Hotovy said. “It’s a service we provide, but at what cost?”

With funding restored to the organization, staff from Keep Columbus Beautiful will be able to attend the 2019 Keep America Beautiful conference this week in Maryland. A potential reason behind the grant increase was the closing of the area's recycling center. Shred Monster, a large-scale commercial and industrial recycling businesses, started accepting residential recycling in Columbus after the city-run recycling facility closed in 2012.

Oceguera said she believes it was the loss of the center that helped to secure greater funding for the organization. Keep Columbus Beautiful plans to create new recycling guides and roll out a media campaign regarding how to recycle correctly with the loss of the center.

“Columbus went through a huge change losing our recycling program,” Oceguera said. “So there was much more of a need for education.”

Eric Schucht is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at eric.schucht@lee.net.

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Eric Schucht earned his bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Oregon in 2018. He has written for The Cottage Grove Sentinel, The Creswell Chronicle, The Pacific Northwest Inlander and The Roseburg News-Review.

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