COMMENTARY: Missing Blue Bins

Recycling Takes a Backseat in New Orleans" Ongoing Recovery

"If we can put a man on the moon, we can make an effective, cost-efficient recycling program," says 33-year-old New Orleans musician Ian Cunningham, popping open a Samuel Adams Light. He estimates that about 80% of his recycling is glass, but since Hurricane Katrina, there’s been no way to dispose of it properly. Phoenix Recycling, the private company that Cunningham employs to pick up his renewable waste, has stopped collecting from him because of the $160 outstanding bill he’s let accumulate over the months.

"The last couple of weeks, where I haven’t been able to recycle, it’s been driving me nuts," Cunningham says. Having spent the majority of his 20s living in environmentally conscious San Francisco, he can’t get used to trashing his recyclables. A month ago, Cunningham woke on a Saturday morning and spent an hour loading his grey minivan with beer bottles and old newspapers. The motor running, he glanced once more at a Times-Picayune to check the address of the free recycling drop-off event scheduled for that day. Upon further inspection he discovered that glass was no longer being collected. Besides a stack of old New York Times on his front seat, glass was all he was planning to contribute.

There"s desire to recycle in New Orleans, but the infrastructure is gone.© cans/recycling bin

"What could I do?" he says defensively, jerking his shoulders to his chin, "I threw it all away and went back to bed."

The Katrina Effect

Before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, residents of Orleans Parish paid $1 a month for the opportunity to put a blue bin next to their garbage can and have their newspapers, glass, aluminum cans and plastics picked up and recycled by the city’s curb-side service. As a result of the storm, Allied Waste, the company responsible for processing these materials, lost one of its two large plants in East New Orleans and has been unable to reopen it since.

Over three years later, city officials still haven’t found a way to resume "blue bin" recycling. Those who want to recycle are forced to pay an average of $15 a month to a private recycling company, such as Phoenix Recycling, or alternatively, hoard their recyclables in their homes for weeks, until they are able to unload them at drop-off sites. In either case, glass is no longer accepted as recyclable waste.

"There are a lot of frustrated people in New Orleans who want to recycle," says Dr. Thomas Sherry, a professor of conservation biology at Tulane University. "It’s a Pain. In. The. Butt." Sherry says, "It’s totally nuts." A resident of New Orleans" Algiers neighborhood, Sherry does not have access to even privatized curb-side recycling at his home. The inability to recycle, he says, goes against his lifelong training as an environmentalist. Whenever possible, Sherry utilizes Tulane’s extensive recycling program, but the main way his family gets around the problem, he says, is "to cheat" and drop off their recyclables at a friend’s uptown residence.

"I can’t recycle bottles," Sherry says. "It kills me." The reality is that the majority of recycling companies in Louisiana and other poorer states in the Gulf region can’t afford to take in glass anymore.

"There’s no market for it," said Steven Cheatham in a December 2008 Times-Picayune article. Cheatham is vice-president of the Recycling Foundation of Baton Rouge, a company that was sponsoring monthly recycling drop-off events for the city of New Orleans. Its facilities also process materials for Phoenix Recycling, the private recycling business applauded for picking up the city’s slack in the months and years following the storm. But as Cunningham realized, the Recycling Foundation, and by extension Phoenix, stopped collecting glass three months ago. It recently announced that all drop-off events for New Orleans in 2009 are cancelled, due to lack of profit from the collected material.

The Money Factor

According to Veronica White, the city’s sanitation director, lack of funds from rebuilding after Katrina and the slumping U.S. economy are the main reasons the city hasn’t reinstated an affordable curbside recycling program. As White explains on the Department of Sanitation’s website, the majority of the city’s funds have been allocated to programs aimed at rebuilding the city. Some residents, however, are perplexed that budgeters don’t consider recycling part of the rebuilding process.

"Recycling should be a main priority of the Nagin administration," Sherry insists, even if the program is not making money for the city. He believes it would be in the best interest of New Orleans financially and environmentally to subsidize recycling because of the cost of landfills and the overabundance of waste that, without exposure to oxygen, has no chance to biodegrade.

"As the landfills erode, that stuff’s just going to end up in the oceans," Sherry says. He has written several letters to the city council to this effect, but admits he does not know how far the city’s budget is already being stretched and is, therefore, reluctant to speculate about who is to blame.

Cunningham has a less sympathetic opinion of local politicians. The talented guitarist, a regular in popular bluegrass, funk and rock bands around New Orleans, still tries to maintain what he calls the "California model" of living: making life choices with an environmental mindset that demands long-term thinking.

"What really kills me is those plastic bags you get at the supermarket," he says. "You use it for ten minutes and it spends thousands of years in a landfill." According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, recycling not only keeps unwanted waste out of landfills, protecting habitats and saving natural resources, it also "cuts global warming pollution from manufacturing, landfilling and incinerating." Reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere helps to decrease the detrimental effects of global warming, such as the heating of the ocean’s salt water, the leading cause of bigger, more erratic storm systems, like Hurricane Katrina. In essence, Cunningham’s "California model" of living could help save the world, or at least, his own little corner of it.

Sherry recognizes the disconnect some New Orleanians have about what happened to the city in 2005 and how they are treating their environment now. "We can’t ask the rest of the world to make sacrifices we’re not willing to," he says, adding that the political and educational leaders in Louisiana have been unable to stress the importance of environmental awareness to young students.

Cunningham agrees that poor education is the root of environmental ignorance. "I love New Orleans," he says, "but this is like the third-world when it comes to environmental consciousness." Even when recycling was readily available to all residents, the majority of households didn’t take advantage. Some neighborhoods threw regular trash in their blue bins. Others didn’t bother putting bins out at all.

Forming Habits

In an April 2008 Times-Picayune survey, 90% of households said they would u

tilize a recycling program similar to the one that was available before Katrina, many stating that they would pay up to $6 a month for the service. Most of the survey’s responses, however, came from uptown households already employing Phoenix to haul away their recyclables. Blair Davis, standing outside the three-story Garden District home she shares with her husband and newborn baby girl comments, "Phoenix is great. They pick up boxes. You don’t even have to tear them up first. They do plastic and newspapers. It’s better than before."

Other residents, like those hesitant to give $180 of their yearly salary to Phoenix, are less motivated to recycle privately. The alternative, ushering stored recyclables to drop-off sites, is practically out of the question for the thousands who rely mainly on public transportation. Jacob Tanner, a rooftop repairman, and the slide guitarist in Cunningham’s bluegrass band, admits that he and his girlfriend recycled regularly before Katrina, but now they don’t even think about it. "We used to recycle. Now we don"t," he says, "There used to be those blue bins. Now there aren"t."

Cunningham is not surprised by Tanner’s response. "You can’t trust people to be on their best behavior not to pollute. You know? That just doesn’t work." He adds that you can’t force people to recycle, either. You can only give them a good environmental education and hope that they do. "If everyone understood the process," Cunningham says, it would just click. Then it’s just a matter of having a program available to anyone, anywhere, who realizes it’s the right thing to do.

JANE DIIORIO is a writer and journalism student at Tulane University.