How New Orleans Got Its Recycling Back

Why it took six years for the city to solve its waste problem

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Flickr/EditorB

When I asked Marnie Winter and Katherine Costanza—director and assistant director of the Environmental Affairs Department in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana—why, to this day, their municipal government hasn’t been able to resurrect its curbside recycling program in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they asked me to consider refrigerators.

“After a normal storm, people leave and come back after a couple days and clean out their refrigerators,” Winter says. “After Katrina, people were gone for weeks. And refrigerators were just sitting there without power the whole time.”

The fact that more than a million people in the New Orleans metro area—which includes Jefferson and six other parishes (Louisiana’s equivalent to counties in other states)—returned to widespread power outages and hot, humid weather didn’t help, either. Refrigerators became festering incubators for decomposition.

And they needed to be disposed of. Fast.

Recycling, in other words, was not on anyone’s priority list.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southern Louisiana on August 29, 2005 as a category three storm. By October 19, 2005 Jefferson’s “refrigerator graveyard,” a park where more than 5,500 refrigerators were temporarily stored, was featured in Times-Picayune online slideshows. Fox News and others dropped by, turning the park into a national spectacle.

Which was justified, Costanza says. The images were shocking. But that graveyard was merely one part of an unparalleled cleanup and rebuilding effort that’s not complete to this day.

“Back then, there was this sense of ‘get done whatever cleanup we can get done, quick,’ so we can return to some sense of normalcy,” Winter says.

Those refrigerators were transported to scrap yards and landfills. Later, at least one book was written about them. And while the cleanup efforts have slowed after six years, Costanza says there remains one piece of the municipal waste puzzle that isn’t quite in place.

“Recycling,” she says, “is that last piece.”

Before Katrina, one in three Jefferson households participated in curbside recycling. That stopped completely, in Jefferson and the other parishes, after Hurricane Katrina.

By April 2007, a spokesman from New Orleans parish told the Times-Picayune that a recycling program was “on the far horizon.” A St. Charles representative ruled out recycling completely, calling it too expensive to consider.

Meanwhile, Jefferson paced the region on recycling efforts. Parish council delayed renegotiating a waste management contract that expired in March 2006 so it could appoint a committee to study possibilities for curbside recycling in its unincorporated areas.

By August 2007, that committee recommended a weekly curbside program and suggested that it could be done at a cost of less than $2 per month, per household.

But the ensuing discussion of how to fund and implement that program has taken years and ultimately fallen flat. This is not purely the result of indecisive parish councilors. It does, however, involve significant rate increases and a limited number of firms interested in accepting the job.

When Katrina made landfall, it submerged the New Orleans metro area’s most convenient recycling center under eight feet of water. That center recovered somewhat, but it’s still not able to accept third-party recyclables. So when Jefferson requested bids for curbside recycling in 2008, companies knew they would be forced to transport materials to the Recycling Foundation in Baton Rouge some 75 miles northwest of Jefferson.

So when Jefferson put out requests for bids, they only received two proposals. And the bids were high, ranging from a ten percent increase (the cost was $1.87 per month, per household pre-Katrina; the cheapest new bid was $2.05 per month, per household) to a 181 percent increase (the most expensive 2008 bid was $5.25 per month, per household).

The bids were declined outright.

Since then, the Recycling Foundation (which was recently purchased by IESI, the company currently contracted to oversee Jefferson’s curbside trash program), opened a branch in New Orleans. Another recycling bid request was sent out in March of this year. The bids are lower because of the closer facility. But, bottom line, the proposals are stalled and recycling in Jefferson remains “on the back burner.”

Which is why the recycling program in Orleans Parish is so surprising.

This May, New Orleans pulled ahead of Jefferson by instituting its first municipal curbside recycling program since Katrina.

That plan is the result of contract negotiations between the city, Metro Disposal and Richard's Disposal, two of the three private companies that oversee New Orleans’ trash services.

When incoming mayor Mitch Landrieu took office last May, his staff estimated the city faced a $62 million budget deficit. According to spokesman Ryan Berni, the mayor saw this as an opportunity to renegotiate private contracts. One of these contracts was trash collection.

The city told its three trash contractors—Metro, Richard’s and SDT (which collects trash in the French Quarter and downtown)—that it wanted lower fees and the addition of a curbside recycling program. If the contractors were not okay with that, the city would put the trash contracts out to bid.

SDT agreed to lower its rates but declined to institute a recycling program.

Metro and Richard’s agreed to lower rates, too. And they agreed to a plastic and paper recycling program (no glass) only if the city would purchase the recycling bins themselves.

The mayor agreed to new terms from each company without sending out new requests for bids.

But because the recycling carts are expensive (they cost $40.25 per unit), the city instituted a voluntary program that required an online sign up. The city did this, Berni says, because, even before Katrina, only about a quarter of households actively recycled.

Since May, the city has spent about $1.6 million on recycling bins. So far, about 34,000 households have signed up out of about 120,000 eligible households.

“We continue to see an uptick as the program progresses,” Berni says. “Making recycling mandatory is a long term aspiration. But we’re happy with what we’ve done so far.”

The city should indeed be happy, says David McDonough, president of Phoenix Recycling in New Orleans.

But McDonough’s enthusiasm is “bittersweet,” as Alex Woodward pointed out in Gambit this spring.

Phoenix Recycling has offered private curbside recycling in New Orleans metro parishes since 1991. Phoenix, too, was driven out of the New Orleans recycling business after Hurricane Katrina.

McDonough, whose technical training is in computer systems installation, “fell into” recycling after college when he decided that New Orleans needed a recycling program. He says New Orleans has always had a problem with waste disposal.

“The culture of New Orleans has always been more inclined to throw it away than to worry about recycling,” he says. “Remember that this is a city that measures the success of Mardi Gras by the amount of trash cleaned up afterward.”

About a year after Katrina, McDonough was struck by the same impulse he felt after college: New Orleans needed recycling. He wondered if people were ready to recycle again. So he started polling former customers in late 2007.

“We thought if we could sign up 1,000 people in a few months, we could make it work,” he says.

They had 1,300 people sign up within three weeks.

“Once it started spreading, once people started hearing that we were back on board, we were overwhelmed,” he says.

The ultimate goal, however, was to use his program as a way to push the city toward instituting a new municipal program.

“We wanted to prove to the city that there was interest,” he says. “We would much rather have a recycling program that serves everybody instead of a limited number of people who are willing to pay for it. I can go back to computers if I need to.”

Getting to a universal recycling program is tough to do naturally, though, according to John Moore and Jaquelyn Dadakis, who worked for the Office of Environmental Affairs under Ray Nagin, New Orleans’ previous mayor.

“The real question for governments is about diverting waste streams in a way that makes sense. But all that either comes from federal regulations, political pressure, or at some point the cost of landfill space becoming too expensive to the point where cities need to figure out how to minimize the amount of trash they’re placing there,” says Dadakis, who’s now based out of Cambridge, Mass., working as a senior consultant for Clean Energy Solutions, Inc.

Landfill space isn’t yet an issue in the New Orleans metro area, but both Moore and Dadakis say the Landrieu administration was eager from the start to institute a curbside recycling program. And that eagerness dovetailed nicely with a visit from Barack Obama to Loyola University toward the end of Mayor Nagin’s term.

“After the president speaks, he asks for questions and the first question he gets is, ‘Why doesn’t New Orleans have a recycling program?’” says Moore, who’s now pursuing a master’s degree in sustainable real estate development at Tulane University. “So this is a community member picked randomly out of the crowd asking the mayor—in front of President Obama—why New Orleans can’t put the recycling issue to bed.”

“At that point,” Moore says, “the city had no choice. Curbside recycling was on its way, one way or another.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Editor B.

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