The Big Easy Problem

In most major cities, curbside recycling is a way of life. Residents know the schedule, fill the bins and don’t give it a second thought. But what happens when a citywide tragedy causes the termination of curbside service?

This is the case in New Orleans, which has been without city-provided curbside recycling since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The city pledged to bring back curbside service as recently as 2008 but faced budget shortfalls and the reality that curbside service could cost $8 million annually. Combined with a declining market for recyclables, there’s no telling when (or if) New Orleans will resume curbside service.

Currently, there is no citywide curbside recycling program in New Orleans. Photo: Proairticket.com

Currently, there is no citywide curbside recycling program in New Orleans. Photo: Proairticket.com

Calm Before the Storm

Just like most other features of New Orleans, recycling was a whole different ballgame pre-Katrina. Starting in 1995, Orleans Parish residents could recycle newspapers, glass, aluminum cans and plastics at the curb for a $1 monthly fee.

The service was also commingled, meaning one bin to accumulate all recyclable material. While no official statistics were available regarding participation, an Urban Strategies survey showed 80 percent of those residents with access participated in the program.

However, the curbside service was only available to about 35 percent of the Orleans Parish population, meaning less than 7 percent of the city’s solid waste was recycled.

A City on the Rebound

One of the major reasons for the loss of curbside service after Hurricane Katrina was the destruction of an Allied Waste processing plant in East New Orleans. Allied Waste currently offers a facility for residential recycling by appointment, but does not offer collection from curbside programs.

While the city has been unable to reinstate curbside service, recycling opportunities are available in The Big Easy:

  • Phoenix Recycling offers curbside service for a $15 monthly fee, which accepts even more materials than Allied Waste used to collect. The company is not affiliated with or contracted by the city of New Orleans.
  • Local nonprofit The Green Project offers limited residential drop-off of many curbside materials, in addition to electronics for a fee.
  • Orleans Parish partnered with the Recycling Foundation of Baton Rouge to provide drop-off days for recyclables, although this service has been temporarily discontinued due to decreased demand for recyclables.
  • New Orleans has put together a 39-page booklet of where all types of recyclables can be taken within Orleans Parish.
  • While it may not relate to consumers, the city continues to spends millions annually to collect and recycle debris from Hurricane Katrina. This includes construction materials, organic waste and even hazardous materials from demolished houses such as asbestos.
    2005's Hurricane Katrina plays a major role in the city's lack of curbside recycling. Photo: Katrina.noaa.gov

    2005's Hurricane Katrina plays a major role in the city's lack of curbside recycling. Photo: Katrina.noaa.gov

One product with no current recycling options in New Orleans is glass containers, as not even Phoenix Recycling accepts them. Ironically, one use of recycled glass is for sand replacement, which can protect against water damage from storms by forming sandbars.

Criticism from environmental groups in New Orleans is that a lack of curbside service hurts those who rely on public transportation. “This is a city where people didn’t leave (for Katrina) because they didn’t have a car,” local Sierra Club chairwoman Leslie March tells The Times-Picayune.

She also says it’s unreasonable for residents to store up their recyclables for a month and then cart them across town to be recycled.

The Times-Picayune also conducted a survey in April 2008 showing 90 percent of households would pay up to $6 per month for a recycling service similar to what was available before Hurricane Katrina.

Evaluating the Upside

In the grand scheme of things, New Orleans’ lack of curbside recycling does not put it far behind other major cities for waste management. Nearby Texas cities Houston and San Antonio have recycling rates less than 5 percent, and 15 city-sponsored drop-off events in 2007 and 2008 were able to collect and recycle 160 pounds of material.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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