By: Alexia Narun
Why is New Orleans struggling with sustainability, and what programs are emerging to resolve the issue?
Unreliable trash pickup, faulty sewerage, and water contamination have always been struggles for the city of New Orleans. In the last 10 years, recycling has become a particularly contentious issue, whether tourists and Mardi Gras revelers leave behind beads and beer bottles, natural disasters stop the flow of trucks, or workers are on strike. Residents are being forced to look outside of their typical pickup schedules to recycle. Luckily, local organizations emerged to foster self-sufficient and sustainability efforts, attempting to make up some of the gap in the city’s lack of recycling infrastructure.
Recycling is one of the primary methods of sustainability that people find accessible and easy. Not everyone can be a social justice warrior or finance an electric car, but most can find a way to sort some boxes and cans to reduce their carbon footprint.
However, the vagueness behind recycling leads to citywide underperformance and dissatisfaction from residents. The restrictions for recycling in New Orleans, listed on the city’s website, Nola.gov.com, differentiate between “paper, metals, cardboard and plastics, which are disposed of through different processes.” The Elysian Fields plant allows both plastics No.1 and No. 2 — soda, water bottles, milk, and juice containers — and various paper recyclables. But, there is no communication besides the government website to offer insight on the cleanliness of materials and limits on styrofoam, glass, and food containers. Similarly, only 50% of eligible addresses in the city are registered for recycling pick-up. Drop-offs are accepted and promoted, but require transportation and availability during the single weekly time slot.
With these restrictions, New Orleans’ recycling rate is one-tenth of the national rate and equal to the 1960 national rate of just 6%. Between 2017 and 2021, only 3% of recycling picked up actually made it to the processing facility, after the citywide recycling program nearly shut down in 2017. Of what gets collected, 25-30% of recycling is diverted to the landfill because of contamination.
In July 2017, China, the primary destination for almost all recycled plastics, instituted a ban on 24 recyclables that went into motion in March 2018. About 27% of America’s recyclables that would have been exported to China were redirected to local landfills. The country’s habit of offshoring paper materials, which are now rerouted to Canada and Mexico, exacerbated a larger issue in consumer culture and overproduction. The repercussions are felt through increased domestic costs on recycled materials — prices that are still in place today.
In 2019, citywide recycling took another hit when the Republic Services of New Orleans, a city waste company, announced that they would no longer accept recycling. Luckily, the service was reinstated, although the categories of plastic were so reduced that the “curbside program [would] no longer pick up most categories of plastic.”
Following Hurricane Ida in September 2021, the City of New Orleans reported that the debris in the city amounted to 54,000 tons. Residents who pay the sanitation bill every month were forced to live with piling trash for over a month in the worst cases in the Seventh Ward and New Orleans East. The city offered the option to bring trash to public landfills, yet some required a fee and were discouraged by long lines. Trash pickup was considered a luxury.
At the same time, recycling was hardly an afterthought. Mayor LaToya Cantrell shut down the city’s recycling program for the last third of the year following the detrimental hurricane.
In the downriver neighborhoods, curbside recycling could not resume until a new waste contract was signed. While this contract was planned for early 2022, it did not go through until Oct. 27, 2022. Residents in downriver neighborhoods were denied curbside recycling for nearly a year.
The fight to stabilize trash pick-up in a city as visited and populated as New Orleans continues into 2023, as new contracts are being drafted to revise past oversights and unequal fees. Nevertheless, a developed American city in 2023 should not be struggling to provide basic waste management for its residents.
Closer to Tulane University’s campus, only three of 16 off-campus students interviewed about recycling confirmed that their landlords briefed them on New Orleans’ recycling process in their signed lease. In one anonymous lease, the contract specifies cardboard, paper, and plastic allowed in the bins, and no garbage. However, in the same lease, the landlord stated that they did not know the recycling day.
When tenants move into a new property, the recycling service is most likely already set up for them, which all 16 students validated. Lucy Vanderbrook, a third-year student living off campus, explained that although her recycling service was set up, “The only rules [the landlord] gave [them] was that [they] couldn’t put glass in it.”
Julia Baratta, a junior at Tulane as well, said due to construction on her street, “[They] put [their] bins out on the street and they won’t get picked up for several weeks.” She expressed how frustrating it is that “[They’re] trying to recycle, but the city’s not taking it.” She also mentioned in reference to her house lease that, “[They] had recycling pickup already set up, but [They] had to do [their] own research to determine what goes in the bin.”
In an attempt to aid more effective recycling strategies in New Orleans, both Baratta and Ryan Mortonson, another junior at Tulane, shared their experiences with Recycle Dat — a new recycling initiative held on Mardi Gras parade routes. Recycle Dat started in 2022 as a volunteer-led organization, in combination with other local sustainability efforts, to “keep trash off the streets, out of the drainage system, and away from the landfill.” Along the parade route, volunteers collected aluminum cans. Baratta mentioned that beads were recycled through a separate entity and no plastic was allowed.
“Not only are we taking stuff out of landfills…even the profits are going to help out other organizations,” Mortonson said. All of the collected cans from Recycle Dat are sold to EMR Metal Recycling, and the revenue is donated to Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, Louisiana SPCA, and New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.
When asked about how recycling was perceived on the route, Baratta said parade-goers “were surprised and really appreciative,” some even offering full cans or cash tips. It seems to be a shared sentiment that citizens of New Orleans want to recycle. It is the city’s unstable system that causes such low success rates.
“People are pro-recycling. No one was angry that we were looking through their stuff,” Baratta reiterated.
In combination with Recycle Dat, Glass Half Full collected glass materials on the parade route. Mortonson primarily collected glass bottles for the organization. Although the Recycle Dat volunteers were initially asked to avoid glass because of its weight, Mortonson explained that there were stations along the route where it could be recycled.
Glass Half Full is a New Orleans grassroots organization, founded in 2020 by two Tulane graduates, Franziska Trautmann and Max Steitz. The 40,000 square foot processing facility in Gentilly transforms glass into a functional resource for coastal restoration. Kelsie Guzik, the center’s new administrative coordinator, said, a “growing team of staff, volunteers, and community members [divert] tens of thousands of pounds of glass from NOLA’s landfills every week.”
Because of the city’s recycling rules, “a single glass bottle placed in your city recycling bin will result in the entire load being sent to the landfill,” the organization’s website states.
To avoid such waste, GHF allows drop offs at Louisa Street where the new facility is located. The organization also does residential, business, and event pickups from registered donors in three nearby parishes: Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard. Residents order a nine-gallon crate, and once a month their glass products are picked up.
After it is collected, the glass is sorted and all plastic or metal parts are removed. In processing, the recyclables are crushed into various sizes, each used for a different sustainable purpose. From here, it is deposited as sandbags to reduce flood damage along the coast, to be reconstructed into new glass products, or further processed into flooring.
Granted, not every New Orleans resident wants to lug their glass recycling to the facility or pay $22 per month for pickup. In response to this doubt, Guzik said GHF’s goal is to “make glass recycling as accessible as possible.” Guzik emphasized that the organization hopes to “provide a sustainable alternative to wasting millions of tax dollars per year on dumping recyclables in landfills.” Along with spreading awareness through collaborations, like Recycle Dat for Mardi Gras, GHF partners with non-profit Glassroots “to expand accessibility to recycling through education and outreach.”
Glassroots especially attempts to reach people who are typically excluded from sustainability initiatives and impacted the most by environmental racism. The free community drop-off locations throughout the city are highlighted for this reason. In May 2022, Glassroots and the Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development distributed bins throughout the Lower Ninth Ward to make recycling more accessible. Eight new glass drop-off boxes were added to the district. The Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development was founded in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina “to rebuild/renovate historic Lower Ninth Ward homes,” focusing on sustainable building techniques. Now, the organization builds micro parks, adds recycling bin locations, and works on storm filter treatments. All of their initiatives work “to create a sustainable environment through education, advocacy, and service learning.”
GHF also collaborates with Feed the Second Line, a non-profit organization that seeks to create a more equitable city by providing groceries and essentials to the “culture bearers of New Orleans.” The organizations joined in a project called “Get Lit Stay Lit” installing “solar powered micro-grids.” The program uses the construction of solar panels as training for anyone interested in working in the green economy to gain real-world experience, before entering the industry.
On April 18, GHF revealed its newest partnership with Tulane University’s Office of Sustainability. They plan to expand glass recycling across campus through eight collection hubs at residence halls. According to Tulane’s article, “The expansion could divert an estimated 250,000 pounds of glass annually” from the landfill to the Gentilly warehouse.
Tulane’s effort with GHF marks a new effort by the university to make a sustainable change in its continued impact on the city of New Orleans. Starting in 2016, Tulane has been ridiculed repeatedly by the student body for its refusal to refinance its investment from fossil fuels. Its $3 billion endowment acts as a marker for the university’s contradictory status as a powerful institution in Louisiana that negatively impacts the city with extensive carbon emissions, yet takes priority when it comes to hurricane destruction relief and student evacuation.
The Divest Tulane movement, instigated by the Undergraduate Student Government, now the Tulane Undergraduate Assembly, called for the school’s administration to align with other powerhouse colleges like Stanford University, Georgetown University, Boston University, and the University of Maryland to leave the fossil fuel industry in the past.
One year after Divest Tulane’s Earth Day March, Tulane has yet to make any major shifts in the movement to slow climate change. So far, the school’s Climate Action Plan pledges to reduce its emissions by 30% by 2025 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. In comparison, there are presently nine carbon neutral universities in America. The new program with GHF is the right step in starting small, although the university has a long way to go in making a net positive impact for New Orleans.
Local initiatives can make an impact on New Orleans recycling, stepping in where citywide infrastructure fails. Whether it is being more cognizant of what you put in your city recycling bin, collecting glass to drop off at Glass Half Full, or volunteering to pick up extra recyclables along the parade routes, residents of Greater New Orleans must make a small-scale effort if the city wants to become more sustainable. Even more so, major institutions in the city, like Tulane University, have the responsibility to adopt sustainable habits and stand up for environmental justice.
“It wakes you up. As soon as you see someone doing the ‘right thing’ you think, ‘Then I should be doing that.’” Baratta said.