By Gemma Koeberl
The sanitation infrastructure of New Orleans is fraught with dysfunction; there is a massive amount of trash and recycling in New Orleans that nobody seems to know quite how to handle. When operations run smoothly, sanitation efforts are barely adequate at best. Following major events–such as hurricanes and Mardi Gras–the city must scramble to gather waste from the streets.
In the wake of Hurricane Ida’s August 2021 landfall, trash sat in the streets for weeks. Storm debris rotted in the Louisiana sun, blocking sidewalks and wrinkling noses. Residents of the city know to empty their refrigerators and freezers when a major hurricane is bearing down on the Gulf Coast–it is unpleasant to return to a kitchen scented by meat that rotted while the power was out. However, this food-turned-trash has to go somewhere: the curb. This disgusting mess, along with large tree branches felled by the storm’s Category 4 winds, roofing materials, and downed power lines all piled up in the weeks following the storm.
Abraham Messing, a Leonidas resident, was rightfully frustrated with the city’s failure to clean his neighborhood. “After the hurricane, I left town for a few weeks. When I came back, the same trash that was there right after the storm was sitting on my street. It was unbelievably stinky.” Directly after Ida, it made sense for the Sanitation Department to neglect garbage pickup; there wasn’t even power or cell service in most of the metro area. As time went on, lights and air conditioning were revived, but the sidewalks remained unsanitary. Overlooked waste is not only an annoyance, but a genuine health hazard: Rats and other disease spreading vermin are drawn to it.
At one point, it was suggested by the city’s administration that residents haul their own trash away. A tweet from the city’s mayor, LaToya Cantrell, announced that “The City of New Orleans Department of Sanitation will allow residents to dispose of bagged household garbage at the Elysian Fields Transfer Station. This will be free of charge, temporarily.” As one might expect, few people were thrilled by the notion of putting decaying bags of waste in their cars and driving them to Elysian Fields. Even worse, the tweet seemed to suggest that the city was doing some sort of favor for citizens by allowing them to do this for free.
The chaos of New Orleans’ trash and recycling pickup is nothing new. Even pre-Ida, waste was accumulating on the streets due to a shortage of laborers. Residents complained of heaps of junk and skipped pickup days. Following the storm, waste collection was officially reduced to once a week, despite the fact that the trash contracts stipulated for it to happen twice weekly. As of November 2022, well over a year since the disaster, citizens of New Orleans are still not consistently receiving the sanitation services paid for by their taxes.
The politics, as well as the logistics, of the city’s garbage setup are complicated. The sanitation failures following Ida were partly the fault of Metro Service Group Inc., the company that held a major trash contract at the time. Matt Torri, the leader of the Department of Sanitation, held a press conference where he blamed the company for not fulfilling their duties. “The city and the Department of Sanitation have precariously held Metro’s service area together, providing Metro full payment of their monthly invoice of $900,000, despite the fact that Metro is only providing 20% of the services, per their contract.” In return, the company claimed to not have been paid for their work. This turned into a battle that stretched through the fall of 2022, with Metro asserting that they were not being paid for services rendered and the Department of Sanitation claiming that the company was not fulfilling the duties laid out in their contract. In October, Metro filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in an attempt to prevent the mayor from firing them. However, as of November 2022, the contracts have been redrawn and the companies IV Waste and Waste Pro have begun to collect garbage from what was once Metro’s service area.
In another sanitation related nuisance, garbage bin theft is rampant. Many houses will label their city-provided cans by spray painting their addresses on the side or lid, but that is no guarantee. As Uptown resident Matthew McCaffrey told me, his trash can was stolen in front of him off the curb. “I came home while they were collecting bins from houses before mine. I stepped out a few minutes later after they had passed my house, and my trash bin had vanished. Naturally, after searching for the bin, I asked the garbage men if they knew where it was, since they were still on my street. They told me something along the lines of ‘That wasn’t us.”
This is not an unusual occurrence. When it happens, the theft victims are told to order a new bin through 311, which will arrive in 6-8 weeks. In the meantime, while he waits on his new garbage can, McCaffrey was told to leave his trash directly on the corner.
The issue does not only lie in the lack of adequate garbage collection. There is also an excessive amount of waste produced in the city, especially during Mardi Gras. During the holiday, there is an astonishing amount of trash accumulated in the streets of the city; so much that the success of the Carnival season is often measured by the weight of the garbage picked up after the parades roll. In February 2022, well over a thousand tons of garbage were collected following the holiday. Despite the bins placed along parade routes, litter covers the ground in busy places. It takes a large network of workers to deal with this problem. Employees are pulled from other departments and private contractors are used to handle the incredible masses of waste created during the holiday season. These crews were actually called in after Hurricane Ida to deal with the sanitation crisis. In an effort to aid the post Mardi Gras cleanup, many local citizens and businesses create recycling stations for beads and throws, but most still end up as waste.
The New Orleans Department of Sanitation city also does not pick up glass recycling. The curbside recycling bins collected by the city only accept paper products (including cardboard but no pizza boxes), metal cans, and some types of plastic. In order to have glass be recycled by the city, a citizen must bring their empty bottles to Elysian Fields between 8am and 1pm on Saturdays. If there is glass in a curbside recycling bin, the entire contents of the can will be sent to the landfill. It has actually been debated if the recycling is even reused, or simply sent to the dump with the rest of the waste picked up from the street.
Glass Half Full, a local organization started by former Tulane students, is trying to fill a hole left by the city’s insufficient sanitation effort by addressing this issue. The grassroots organization collects and recycles glass from city residents that would otherwise likely end up thrown into the landfill with the contents of garbage cans.
As their website states, “We were disappointed and frustrated with the lack of glass recycling in New Orleans.” Instead of trying to change the city’s existing system, the founders decided to work on a grassroots solution. The waste collected by Glass Half Full is processed into various products, including sand and gravel. “From flooring and new glass products to disaster relief sandbags for mitigating flood damage, we work to creatively integrate our recycled materials into everyday life.”
Many of these glass byproducts go to efforts to rebuild the Louisiana coast and disaster relief. One of the reasons that hurricanes are becoming even more devastating is the degradation of coastal lands. Barrier islands and marshes slow the progress of hurricanes before they reach more heavily populated metro areas such as New Orleans, and they are disappearing. Glass Half Full redirects glass that would otherwise end up in landfills and uses it to help slow the destruction of coastal lands. They also create sandbags to manage flooding. When the city’s government fails the people of New Orleans, citizens are forced to come up with their own ways of filling in the gaps.
This city produces excessive waste, which is then mishandled. As Messing remarked to me, “there is so much trash on my street and they don’t come to pick it up as often as they should. It is frustrating to see such a basic service be neglected. Our garbage system is broken.”
From the constant road construction that never seems to fix potholes, the failures of the Sanitation Department, or the ineffective management of the crime problem, the city’s infrastructure is widely criticized. Such flaws are why it is often optimistically suggested that people view New Orleans not as a poorly administered American town, but as “one of the better run Caribbean cities.”