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Speakers, organizers stress sustainability at Big Omaha

PaperJam is a sustainable art installation, created by UNL students Jolene Dreier, Garth Britzman and Katie Horn, is on display at Big Omaha.

A subtle shift is being felt at Big Omaha this year. Thanks to well-marked recycle bins, art installations, and even conference speakers themselves, the event has a new focus on sustainability. 

“As our conference gets bigger, it was hard to watch how sustainability wasn’t a part of it,” our event coordinator Brittany Mascio said before the event. “We go through so much.”

She noted that it seemed almost serendipitous how the emphasis came together this year. For example, the KANEKO itself was already in partnership with a local program called Common Good Recycling. Community-development organization inCOMMON provides recycling and waste receptacles to businesses and hires low-income and marginalized locals to pick them up.

“We come down on our bikes and carts and load them up and take them to the downtown recycling drop off,” said Leslie Wells, coordinator of Common Good.

Not only is Common Good Recycling an employment re-entry point for some, Wells pointed out that it’s also a way for small businesses to ease into recycling. “We have a couple different tiers to make it accessible to everybody with a business downtown,” he said of the prices that start at $10 per pickup.

Common Good Recycling provided containers for glass, co-mingled recyclables, and trash at this year’s Big Omaha.

“We’re one of the biggest events that goes through KANEKO,” Mascio said, “so we figured we should team up with Leslie if possible.”

Back to the Roots sells grow-at-home products like the mushroom kit pictured above. 

No stranger to presenting ideas to hundreds of people, speakers Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, co-founders of Back to the Roots, also are passionate about sustainability. In fact, its central to the company, which creates grow-at-home products like the Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm.

According to the company’s website, the founders were “inspired by the idea of producing local, fresh food” and “realized our company’s true passion was … in creating tools to make food personal again and bring beautiful design, sustainability, education, and food into homes and classrooms around the world.” Arora and Velez spoke Thursday morning during the fifth annual Big Omaha. 

Thanks to a call for artists to exhibit during the Big Series, another individual saw an opportunity to team up with Big Omaha. Jolene Dreier, a junior majoring in advertising and public relations at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, decided to take a stab at presenting her sustainability committee’s art installation.

The structure is called PaperJam and, standing at 3’x12’, is composed of about 400 paper pyramids. The pyramids are created using recycled paper found throughout the university’s campus and folded using traditional origami techniques. The pyramids are then strung together with cardboard pieces for stability. The sides of each pyramid are colored white, green and blue and covered in text, so that viewers walking around the installation see the work form a different perspective.

“We’ve adopted a reckless attitude toward copying and printing,” Dreier said. “Can we really afford to keep doing this? We want to ask this question to these startups.”

Big Omaha attendees can answer her question by adding to PaperJam with their own bits of paper, inscribed with personal ideas about sustainability. “How cool would it be to put this in front of hundreds people and they could maybe take the idea and run with it in their own spaces?” she said. 

“Providing big ideas and inspiring motivation … it has to happen at the source,” Mascio said. “We have to have a place to incorporate those ideas. That starts at the conference.”

Credits: Photos by Malone & Company

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