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Two large yellow balers occupy a prominent space at the Keep Alliance Beautiful Recycling Center. The right baler is devoted solely to cardboard while the left machine alternates between paperboard, plastic and aluminum. A steady stream of material from businesses ensures a bale of cardboard most days.

Cole and I are the official cardboard wranglers covering the route on both sides of town. On either side of Box Butte Avenue we visit businesses on the West End and the East End daily -- except curbside collection day. Each location fills containers provided by KAB, with a handful maintaining their own inside storage. The containers are the type used by agriculture cooperatives with an aluminum framework and plastic interior with the top cut open. We scoop the cardboard out of the top then tilt them and reach in to gather the rest of the pieces.

Our pickup is the older of two white trucks driven by KAB. It has a cage extending from the bed with a lift at the tailgate. Before being acquired by KAB the vehicle was owned by the Alliance Pepsi plant. Its route then and now made a familiar sight throughout the community. The odometer testifies the pickup has enough miles to have traveled to the moon and halfway back.

Most businesses are good about breaking down boxes to optimize stacking and use of the cargo space. Intact boxes can also be stacked snugly yet take up more room. Often we climb into the back to stomp these down to create more space for a full load. Boxes range from palm-size paperboard to monstrous rectangles that contained components for local automotive body shops. Flexibility is a key characteristic of cardboard. The big car boxes can usually be folded and placed into the baler when broken down without cutting.

I started at KAB late this past spring. Mild weather helps the collection process run smoothly. Rain, snow and wind slow us down the most. Wet cardboard must be separated and dried before being baled. Keeping dozens of pieces in one piece is a challenge without the wind. We tend to keep the pile shorter on windy days and sometimes attach bungee cords. However, a rouge box (or several) likes to fly off in traffic. We stop and track down the wayward cardboard and may bring it inside the cab. The Third Street (Highway 2) underpass affects wind currents and is always a tricky place to bring the load through in one piece.

Food service accounts for the majority of the cardboard on the route. Restaurants’ business is evident by how quickly their bins fill. Want to know what Alliance residents and visitors like to eat? Check the boxes.

Most days it is just us and the boxes. Occasionally we encounter the people bringing out cardboard. It has been nice to hear them commend us for the service. One time as a few boxes flew out a man stopped his car as we parked to retrieve them. He saw a few he liked and took them off our hands. We have even had an assist from local police officers with traffic to help pick up boxes.

Perhaps the most memorable interaction came this past summer. We had just picked up the two bins at Pizza Hut when a senior citizen flagged us down as Cole was driving past. I could not hear what she said and assumed she had recycling she wanted us to pick up. We followed around the apartment to the front door. No boxes. No bottles. No cans. Not even an old TV to heft into the pickup. Instead, a tail protruded from a crack next to the front door. A garter snake had tried and failed to squeeze into a crack. I took my gloved hand and pulled the young serpent out while Cole pulled back on the frame. The snake was alive but looked as it had been through the wringer as I set him on the grass near Flack Ave. I’m not sure the snake survived though the woman was happy to have our help.

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