Jane Polson: A Nebraska Treasure

Jonathan Swift once wrote: “There seems to be no part of knowledge in fewer hands than that of discerning when to have done.”

 As true today as it was 300 years ago, and particularly so as we say goodbye to Jane Polson, who retires from Keep Nebraska Beautiful (KNB) at the end of February, after 28 years of dedicated and discerning service. Jane took the reins of KNB in 1991, with the passing of founding director, Deanie Anderson – who in 1980, had become only the third Statewide Affiliate in the Keep America Beautiful (KAB) family. Eager to make a difference, Jane moved the organization’s offices from Omaha to Lincoln and quickly got to work.

Her most enduring legacy began in 1994 when she responded to a Lincoln office looking to keep furniture out of the landfill as they moved out of town. Intrigued by the interest it generated, Jane researched the issue, and the Nebraska Materials Exchange Program (Exchange) was born. The only program of its kind to facilitate both industrial scale peer-to-peer reuse and recycling exchanges, as well as equipment, furniture and supply donations to schools and nonprofit organizations, it has become the most successful reuse diversion program in Nebraska history. To date, the Exchange has diverted more than 326 million lbs of material from Nebraska landfills, saving participants more than $6.1 million in both landfill tipping and hazardous waste disposal fees, not to mention another $13.7 million in estimated purchase costs.

Her next call to action came later that year, after State law banned the disposal of waste oil in Nebraska landfills. In response, Jane organized a leadership team and developed the Used Oil Collection Program (UOCP), placing collection tanks county by county until residents across the state had access to disposal. Nebraska Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) funded initial collection tank purchases, but maintenance has been sustained by selling the oil to recyclers through an annually bid blanket contract, maintained by KNB. To date, more than 140,000 participants have disposed of some 2.5 million gallons of used oil through the program.

Not inclined to slow her pace, the next several years saw Jane grow and maintain other programs as well – projects like Litter Free School Zones, Grow Big Red, and the Litter Hotline. Then in 2005, yet another phone call led to what would become her third major achievement at KNB – the Nebraska School Chemical Cleanout Campaign (NE SC3).

A container with radioactive material found in a school office, prompted Jane to send program manager Allen Grell to a national hazardous waste conference, where he met the EPA official heading up school cleanout efforts. Seeking proposals for an extended pilot program, Jane & Allen outlined what would become EPA’s only statewide grant. Looking once again to build consensus among Nebraskans, they brought together 20 state agencies representing governmental, school, health, and safety concerns that signed on to help shape procedures and goals. To date, 235 Nebraska schools have removed some 28,900 items including mercury, high hazard and potentially explosive or radioactive chemicals totaling more than 40,000 lbs!

As she would certainly be the first to point out, it takes the work of many to make each program thrive, but the common thread through each has been Jane’s ability to discern a need at the right time and place, and demonstrate the patience and persistence it takes to bring people together and see the vision through. In fact, even as she heads into retirement, Jane leaves us squarely on the path of yet another fruitful endeavor – the Food Waste Reduction Program. The #1 category of Municipal Solid Waste entering our landfills today, some 40% of food produced in America goes to waste each year. With a focus on education and inclusive of stakeholders from farm to fork, Keep Nebraska Beautiful is working toward a future where pre-consumer surplus alleviates food insecurity, post-consumer waste is composted, and landfill impact – including greenhouse gas production – is significantly reduced.

Were that all she had achieved leading Keep Nebraska Beautiful, these programs would certainly mark an accomplished career, but for Jane they should be thought of as the In-house side of things. For as anyone in the Keep America Beautiful family will attest, Jane embraced her role as statewide coordinator like no one else, before or since. Without question, a major part of her legacy will always include working behind the scenes to help others in the KAB family thrive. 

For instance, Jane would surely agree that her role in helping to grow and support local KAB affiliates in Nebraska has meant as much to her as her own programs. Nearly all of Nebraska’s 21 local affiliate leaders and their boards or steering committees were first trained by Jane – not only to establish and maintain KAB membership, but also regarding compliance with 501c3 organizational standards. And her summer conferences have long been a yearly highlight for local affiliate leaders – not only for the valuable information they impart, but for the joyful sense of camaraderie she cultivates so effortlessly. As Keep Beatrice Beautiful director Linda Grell said “Jane’s the best person I know. She’s always there for me, and does everything she can to help affiliates look good. I’m really going to miss her”.

On the national level, Jane not only trained KAB State Affiliates for some 25 years, she followed through by mentoring many of their leaders, long after initial training was complete. In fact it’s not too much to say that Jane wrote the book on Keep America Beautiful state affiliation. Seriously, she wrote the manual – and while Jane would humbly contend that it was a collaborative effort, KAB Director of Education Sue Smith insists that her part was merely to act as Jane’s scribe. “If there’s one word that best describes Janie, it’s discernment,” Sue said. “She’s the best at sussing out issues, and developing processes that help people achieve. Honestly, (KAB) considers her advice invaluable.”

Other highlights of her work with the national organization include but are not limited to: KAB Board Member, Chairman of the KAB State Leaders Council, and recipient of their highest award, the Keep America Beautiful Professional Leadership Award. 

And speaking of boards and councils, Jane’s desire to help others succeed has never been limited to the KAB family, as she somehow found time to serve other organizations over the years as well, including as: Founding Board Member Nebraska Alliance for Conservation and Environment Education, Past Board Member of Governor’s Task Force on Agriculture and Natural Resources, Past Member of Public Education Committee for the Solid Waste Association of North America, Founding Board Member Volunteer Partners, Past Chairman of the Board and Elder First Christian Church, Past Member, Nebraska Supreme Court Committee on Inquiry, Past President, P.E.O. Chapter EE and Past President, Lincoln P.E.O. Roundtable.

Throughout her career, Jane has meant many things to many people – leader, mentor, teacher, colleague, team-member – but whatever the role, she never asked more of anyone than she was willing to give of herself. So where does all that passion and energy go, now that she’s retiring? To Overland Park, Kansas where we’re sure she’ll find many ways to continue helping others, but where her greatest passion will undoubtedly be in her role as Nana – reveling in the daily moments, big and small of granddaughters Lola and Lucy. Oh, and while she’ll always be a Husker fan, if anyone has tickets to her alma mater KU basketball games… Rock Chalk!

2018 Great American Cleanup

The Great American Cleanup has been a great success this year, and we would like to acknowledge the more than 5 million volunteers and participants who took action in their communities to create positive change and lasting impact.
Shout out to the national sponsors of the Great American Cleanup: GLAD, Dow, Lowe’s, SC Johnson, McDonalds and Altria!

KNB Wins National Award

Keep Nebraska Beautiful has been honored with the Diamond Level Award by Keep America Beautiful for the 13th consecutive year. This award is the highest level given to KAB’s state affiliates and highlights KNB’s dedication to the State of Nebraska.

Contact Us