This story is part of a package published before the May 2021 City of Omaha General Elections. Read all the personal perspectives on issues ailing Omaha here.

No one wants to think about trash. Getting rid of it is just something citizens expect cities to do well. That’s not the case in Omaha, said David Holtzclaw, the owner of a small engineering firm he runs from his home in Dundee.

Disorganized pickup, recycling changes and composting issues have frustrated him for years, pushing him to contact his representative in the Omaha City Council, Pete Festersen, and Mayor Jean Stothert dozens of times. In response, radio silence, he said.

“Here we’re just like 20 years behind in everything,” said Holtzclaw, who moved to Omaha 12 years ago from Houston, Texas, with his wife and kids. “And trying to change something, it’s just so much effort. And it’s been disappointing [to see problems persist].”

It started when garbage trucks, run by Waste Management, started coming off schedule and leaving trash along his curb. Then they stopped picking up his grass clippings, raked leaves and other yard waste. As the problem made headlines, he watched the city approve a new contract with new 96-gallon bins and no long-term plan for recycling.

While bigger recycling bins picked up once every two weeks works better for some, it’s a cut back for Holtzclaw. He fills more green bins than he does garbage cans. Now he drives recyclables to drop-off spots, of which there’s only one inside the Interstate 680 loop. With less yard waste pickup, he also drives carloads of compostables down to Oma-Gro in Bellevue.

Now and in the past Holtzclaw begs the city to figure this out.

“I would call or email my City Councilperson Pete Festersen, and he didn’t do anything,” he said. “I would call a mayor’s hotline. They wouldn’t even record the call. They would forward me to Public Works, occasionally somebody would call you back. And it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s not working great. Sorry.’ Nothing changed.”

David Holtzclaw stands in front of his composting bins and garden in the backyard of his Dundee home. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Holtzclaw doesn’t even want to get worked up about trash. He composts, recycles and has a solar-heated water system in his house, but garbage isn’t his top priority.

His problem is that a city that fumbles trash can’t be trusted with larger issues.

“If you can’t handle potholes, snow removal and waste management, how are you going to handle police relations, race relations? That gets complicated,” he said. “How are you gonna handle economic growth and development? How are you going to keep Conagra? How are you going to improve your schools? I mean, those are hard.”

Waning markets for recyclables and limited composting opportunities have also made waste reduction a huge issue. Cities like Minneapolis, New York and Lincoln have plans. Omaha doesn’t.

Many have worked to push Omaha toward green solutions. Verdis Group, housed in Omaha, helps companies and cities, like Lincoln, come up with sustainability plans.

Holtzclaw doesn’t expect many of these issues to change after the general election on May 11.

0521 Cover Frank Okay
Read the full stories from our May issue. Illustration by Frank Okay.

Though he has a sign for Omaha City Council District 1 candidate Sarah Johnson in his yard, he expects Festersen will keep his job. Likewise for Stothert and most people in city government.

It’s just what he’s come to expect living in Omaha: Things don’t change.

In fact as his three kids, who he says are all high-achieving, STEM-oriented students, get old enough to look at colleges, he tells them this is not where they want to be.

“I’m telling them like, ‘Go away,’” he said. “‘Run hard and run fast.’ My wife gets mad at me, but it’s like, there’s nothing here for you. There’s no future for you. This is a good old boys network. And it just doesn’t seem to want to change.”

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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