By Clara Lacey
Where others saw trash, Max Steitz and his co-founders of the environmental nonprofit Plant the Peace saw an opportunity to bring a dual-accessibility in fighting and protecting against New Orleans’ environmental and sustainability problems. Amidst a global recycling crisis, New Orleans city recycling efforts are lacking in efficiency, effectiveness, and funding resulting in many materials being dumped instead. Plant the Peace’s Glass Half Full program turns the glass waste that often ends up in landfills into sand utilized to make more affordable sandbags for flood protection.
“If you can take glass, something that really doesn’t have to be thrown away, you can recycle it into a precious resource,” Steitz said. “Sandbags are very vital to disaster relief particularly flooding and hurricanes. Unless you built your house up, which is very expensive, you’re stuck using sandbags to try to keep the water out. It’s an incredible makeshift levy because you get so much matter in a single sandbag weighing like 40 pounds that it can divert water.”
When Tulane University students Steitz, Franziska Trautmann, and Max Landy founded Plant the Peace about a year ago, they initially looked to make a more global impact with an educational online game that rewards players for correct answers by planting trees. Eventually, they looked to focus their efforts on making a local impact on the New Orleans community especially in the wake of an environmental crisis.
“I’m a senior so I’m coming up on my fourth year in New Orleans. I always thought this was too big of a problem to solve, and that’s why the government is there,” Steitz said. “But after we did a number of other initiatives and planted almost 20,000 trees, we thought why can’t we be the ones who start this program? Because we need it and the problem isn’t getting any better.”
It’s no secret that Louisiana’s coastline is in danger, with a football field of coastal wetlands eroded every 100 minutes. But many do not realize that we are also globally facing a sand crisis, with the $70 billion-dollar sand mining industry extracting more sand than we have available on earth, causing damage when it is taken from the coastline.
“There’s a layer of sand but when you suck it up, it pushes out and pushes the beach out, causing the same coastal erosion the sandbags are brought in to fight,” Steitz said.
With such a lucrative industry both filling and creating a high demand, private corporations are able to sell sandbags to local municipalities and individuals at a significant profit that can make it inaccessible and unaffordable for those who need it.
“If you need a sandbag, something terrible has happened. You are forced to get them as a last resort effort to save your home,” Steitz said. “But these for-profit companies, our ‘competition,’ steal all of our natural resources of an already eroding coastline and sell it back at higher rates when people need it to protect their houses and families. We want to interrupt this process and turn the glass into sand.”
Plant the Peace uses a six-step process to turn discarded glass into this valuable sand. They sort the products collected from their glass receptacles with a 2-5% throwaway rate, compared to the 90% industry average. Then they put the glass into a machine turning it into a sandy broken glass cullet before running it through a triple-screened filtering station to create pure sand that is shoveled into sandbags. They plan on selling these sandbags at a price undercutting the current industry price by 20-25% in order to make them accessible to the greater New Orleans community.
Currently, the city’s curbside recycling program is limited to materials like plastics #1 and #2, certain cardboards, paper, and aluminum steel cans. Other materials like glass, as well as electronic waste, may only be recycled two Saturdays a month at the Recycling Drop-Off Center at 2829 Elysian Fields Avenue from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm. There is a fifty-pound limit per person on glass recycling, so businesses often have to hire their own material recovery processors. (For the time being, the Department of Sanitation has cancelled the Recycling Drop-off indefinitely during the COVID-19 emergency.)
While there is general consensus of residents appreciative of having any place to drop off these materials for recycling rather than having to directly throw them away, the location, lack of organization, and limited hours for drop-off pose challenges to those looking for waste recovery.
“If you can take glass, something that really doesn’t have to be thrown away, you can recycle it into a precious resource,” Steitz said.
“I’ve heard people call it a hellhole and say you wait and throw things into the pit, and you can see your glass not move for a long time,” Steitz said.
Yelp reviews of the Elysian Fields site describe it as an almost desolate fenced-in area without a clear or efficient system, just a few dumpsters, a pile of tires, and an attendant. Multiple people recount having experienced real difficulty finding the center at all due to lack of signage and a location requiring some tricky U-turns under an overpass. Still, there are many who do not have the resources to get there at all.
“If you don’t have a car or you work on Saturday mornings, which many people do because it’s a service-industry town, it’s super inaccessible,” Steitz says. To remedy this issue, Plant the Peace plans on setting up over 20 glass drop-off receptacles in New Orleans, four of which they have already put up in Uptown, that are always open for donations.
Other community members have recognized and worked to remedy the issue of convenience and accessibility in the current system. Phyllis Jordan, who has served as Executive Director of The Green Project and now works on its board, has banded together with members of 11 neighborhood organizations gathered under the Nextdoor Carrollton program to make glass recycling easier. Neighbors collect their glass together to be brought by a few people as one neighborhood load to the City of New Orleans drop-off center.
“People wanted to bring glass but it was difficult at first because we had to take it all the way to Elysian Fields, which for us is the other side of town, so it’s better to send three or four vehicles and not 45,” Jordan said. “The last time we did it, we had three vans plus two pickup trucks full of glass.”
While grassroots activists are helping their communities, it is a difficult fight, given New Orleans’ long history of struggling to provide sustainable and accessible waste recovery. After the environmental, urban, and bureaucratic disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the city ended its curbside glass recycling program. Given the tourist impact on waste, it is difficult for the city to appropriate funds in a way that manages it all year long.
“The Department of Sanitation has a certain budget and half of their budget goes to Mardi Gras,” said Rachel Skowyra, Recycling Coordinator at Waste Connections, a waste services company with facilities serving Jefferson Parish. “It’s crazy half of it goes to three weeks of the year.”
The issue of making room in the budget for smart, long-lasting waste recovery initiatives is clear in some of the failed city programs. In 2016, Mayor Mitch Landrieu cancelled a revived curbside glass recycling program exclusive to the French Quarter and the Central Business District “due to low participation of eligible properties.” Yet at the same time, glass recycling programs at Whole Foods and Breaux Mart suspended drop-offs because their centers were overwhelmed by the demand.
“The city started collecting glass recycling in the French quarter, where no one really lives and people walk by all the time and throw shit in the bins when they’re drunk,” Skowyra said. “So the program was not designed for success, and a lot of people didn’t even know it was happening.”
It’s no surprise to environmental educators that these programs are not as effective as they could be. Most people don’t realize that without understanding the process of recovering materials, their blind intentions to recycle are often futile.
“The bottom line is that if you put something that cannot be recycled into the recycling bin, it’s going to get hand-sorted by somebody, pulled out, and put in the trash anyway,” Erin Genrich, Environmental Education Coordinator at The Green Project said. “So you’ve made someone’s day harder by giving them extra work to do and your product still ended up in the landfill. You’ve basically taken the scenic route to get to the landfill.”
This concept, known as aspirational recycling, complicates the process at Material Recovery Facilities, costing them time, energy, and money that should be used for recovering viable recyclables. The core of the issue is that the city overall lacks comprehensive educational campaigns teaching people how to recycle correctly.
“I think there’s a lot of information out there about what the city recycles but it’s just not pushed to people in a fun way,” says Liz Davey, the Director of Sustainability at Tulane University and Chair of Keep New Orleans Beautiful. “This is a hard moment to do a big educational campaign because across the country, recycling programs are just trying to hang on.”
So, these problems with efficient recycling are not just unique to New Orleans. Instead, they represent a larger economic challenge for recycling nationally. For decades, the United States exported recyclables to China where they were converted into new goods. Many of those materials were not recyclable in the U.S. because of their low quality and the lack of industrial capacity to recycle them. However, in 2017, China halted this importation with a ban on imports of certain solid waste materials, with other countries like Thailand and Vietnam later doing the same.
“I used to get a $50 check every month for cardboard bales. It’s three dollars now,” Davey said. “There was a glut of materials with these recyclables collected by cities throughout the United States that used to have a global market and now have a much smaller market. We’re in this moment where it’s very difficult to find anyone to take your stuff.”
Without overseas markets to sell materials to, the crisis of recycling is mainly an economic one. “There’s a limited number of places to handle the actual recycling here in the U.S. so because everyone’s still recycling at the same time, there’s an issue of supply and demand,” Rachel Skowyra says.
Yet Skowyra and other optimists view this crisis as a short-term problem that may lead to positive changes in forcing the U.S.’s recycling approach to become more domestic. “I think it will be good in the long run because now a lot of mills and other facilities are in construction in the U.S. So that will provide a lot of jobs, it will cut down the carbon footprint of our recycling, and it will keep things local,” Skowyra said.
Still, with little current financial value of recycling, many of these materials end up in landfills instead, where they can build up over time and cause later damage to residents like those living atop a landfill in Gordon Plaza.
“We have a lot of communities that do not have the political power to fight the landfill,” Davey said. “We have weaker environmental laws here than in other places so it’s just so easy and cheap to put stuff in a landfill, and we don’t have stronger incentives to make people set up a recycling program.”
As someone who has long worked for sustainability in New Orleans, Davey sees this economic hindrance as a signal to a focus on recycling those aluminum cans and plastics with the most energy-value. Since glass is heavier, breakable, and does not save as much energy, she does not see it as a priority to recycle over those other materials.
“Students have often wanted to start grassroots glass recycling efforts in the dorms, but the concern is that if it gets overflowing or a bottle breaks, someone has to pick it up,” Davey said. “If it was a huge environmental impact, we’d find a way to make it work., But since it’s not as big of an issue as some of the other materials, it’s not worth it for us to put that energy and effort in.”
Others also have mixed feelings toward focusing on glass recycling because of its benign material nature compared to more detrimental materials. “Glass is inert, made from natural materials that are mostly sand and silicone,” says Rachel Skowyra. “So when it goes into the landfill, it’s not producing a whole bunch of gases like paper, cardboard and food do.”
Nevertheless, in a city where about 18 million tourists flock each year, there are especially a lot of glass bottles and waste that just end up sitting in landfills paid for by the tax dollars of New Orleanians. If glass recycling is sometimes dangerous and not a priority, perhaps the future for the city’s environmental crisis lies in Plant the Peace’s grassroots model of repurposing glass as another resource valuable to protecting against coastal erosion and climate change.
Plant the Peace is working on expanding to a warehouse in Algiers along with hotspots all around the city. “We’re doing it in a backyard right now but we’re saving thousands and thousands of pounds of glass from a landfill,” Steitz said.
Still, he’s cautious of their development in the face of many previous grassroots glass recycling programs that have shut down over time, mostly due to costs of hauling material.
“We don’t want to grow too fast,” he said. “We want to look into other programs in the city and see how and why they failed as we continue to grow.”