Solution journalism: How recycling can change in New Orleans

 

Photo Credit: Canva

Every morning before my classes, I stop at the new Dunkin Donuts in the LBC and order the same iced drink, a medium iced vanilla latte. Every day I get my drink in a medium-sized plastic cup. As I am finishing my drink on my walk to my first class, I start looking around for a blue recycling bin to see where I can dispose of the plastic cup. To my surprise, I find it very hard to find one of the blue bins, and I end up throwing the perfectly recyclable cup into a regular trash can. I try to make a conscious effort when it comes to not only my iced coffee in the morning but to all my waste, but I have found it really hard to do that around campus and in the whole city of New Orleans. Having been to larger cities like Chicago and New York in the past year, it was difficult for me not to notice the lack of recycling benefits that New Orleans offers. Of the seven different types of plastic usually supported by recycling landfills, New Orleans only allows for two types of plastics to be turned into recycling.

According to Mayor LaToya Cantrell, between 2017 and 2021, only 3.1% of the waste that New Orleans residents placed outside their homes was recycled. Sadly, the remaining 97% of waste got picked up and dumped in the landfill in Avondale. When a city talks about recycling, it can also refer to it as a diversion rate. New Orleans’s diversion rate was one-tenth of the national average for the United States. In 2018, 32% of all solid waste across the country was composted or recycled (diversion), according to the EPA. For comparison, San Francisco, California, has had a diversion rate of approximately 80% every year for almost ten years straight. Unfortunately, New Orleans’s recycling and composting rate are even lower than the national average back in 1960 when the entire country had a diversion rate of only 6%.

New Orleans is different from many other cities because of its location and the hurricane weather it attracts. Early falls tend to bring brutal hurricanes like Hurricane Ida this past year, often suspending recycling programs across New Orleans. When hurricanes strike, the city shifts the focus to cleaning up all the damage and debris, making it difficult to run the diversion programs simultaneously. Additionally, New Orleans is a very busy city with many people coming in and out consistently since it is a popular tourist attraction. It can be tough for the city to keep up with the influx of tourists, adding a great deal to the waste already being produced. One important thing to mention is that historically, New Orleans is also home to a lot of partying, ultimately leading to the consumption of lots of alcohol. Cans and bottles pile up from residents and tourists weekly from consuming all this alcohol which adds greatly to the waste the city already has trouble managing. Having people coming in from different parts of the world, it may be hard for certain cultures to understand recycling and the importance of being mindful of which materials are being thrown out versus what is being recycled and composted.

In 2021, the diversion rate in New Orleans was reduced to 1.7% because of Hurricane Ida for the latter third of the year since all efforts were focused on the mass clean-up of trash and debris. Natural disasters and the influx of tourism are not the only reason New Orleans struggles with significantly low diversion rates dating back to 2017… Of the eligible addresses, only half of them are using the city’s recycling program. For the residents that do have recycling bins, the type of materials that can go into them is limited to certain types of recyclable materials like certain plastics and papers. Glass, food waste, and grass clippings are three big sources of waste that are not accepted by the city, which poses a great concern for a city with so many of those exact materials. Of the recyclable material that is collected, only a mere 25-30% is accepted as the rest unfortunately is contaminated with other materials that are not accepted and must be sent to the landfill where the rest of the waste is disposed of. One of the biggest issues in the city of New Orleans is the lack of inclusion of glass in their recycling program, and there is no word of the city’s processing facility in Jefferson County to add any glass recycling program in the near future.

Unknown German bins

One of the most successful countries to combat its fight against the constantly growing garbage in flux within itself is Germany, although Germany is estimated to produce approximately 30 million tons of garbage waste annually. Germany has decided to take matters into its own hands and do whatever it takes in the global battle of the environment, and they have decided to take recycling head-on. Germany has implemented a very simple and successful recycling initiative called the green dot system, which has limited product packaging. One thing that has been considered a con to this is that the retailers and manufacturers must pay for this green dot. The more packaging a product has, the more the retailers and manufacturers will pay. This initiative has led to less use of materials such as glass, paper, and metal, resulting in less garbage that needs to be put through the recycling program. Through this initiative, Germany has had a massive reduction of about one million tons of garbage than usual every year.

The simple part of this initiative that has led to big success is how garbage and different materials have been sorted. When looking at the material glass, Germany has certain glasses in which you pay deposits and then are able to return after use. Different materials reused using a deposit system include beer bottles, non-alcoholic glass bottles, thicker plastic soda bottles, and yogurt glasses. These multi-use bottles will be used up around 50 different times before they are recycled. The deposit for these multi-use materials ranges between 8 and 15 cents per bottle or glass and is marked with a logo such as “pfand glass,” which translates to “deposit glass.” The different glasses that are not returnable are to be placed in the corresponding slots based on the color of the glass. This whole process is dedicated solely to the different glasses there are… the other bins for all the other materials are usually in front of residences houses marked in different colors such as green, blue, yellow, brown, and gray. All the different “counties” have the same system throughout the country, so there is no confusion. It was found that 97.9% of all reusable bottles are returned or put into collection machines.

The German recycling system illustrates how a country has been able to take the environmental crisis around the world and tackle it from one very important angle: how much of the waste material that Germans are producing is being properly disposed of or recycled. Germany is the leading country in all of Europe when talking about recycling, and this has been due to the strict rules that leaders have enforced on their people to help save the world. The system put in place by the leaders of Germany have forced the citizens to make the smart choice when it comes to disposing of their waste, and by using incentives with glass bottle returned, it has allowed residents to be mindful and not be lazy. Since Germany is the leading country in waste management and diversion, the limitations have proven to be very little. The only aspect of the German recycling system is that it is extremely meticulous and could pose problems for people who do not want to follow the rules. The Germans have also implemented fines for the residents not distributing the material to the correct bins because this will mess up the process for all the correct material that has been put into the correct color-coded bins. By setting fines and rules, citizens are incentivized to ensure they are diligent when placing their recyclable material in the correct bins. The recycling system the Germans have put into place has been very beneficial for the environmental war that the whole world is fighting and more importantly for the country itself. Germany has put itself in the first place when it comes to being the most organized and systematic with the recycling aspect.

Recycling in New Orleans

When looking at the recycling issue within New Orleans, it is hard to find other areas in the United States that struggle as much with this aspect. Instead of trying to find another city with the same downfall, I looked at a city that thrives in this department. San Francisco exceeds almost all expectations possible when talking about recycling and its initiative. New Orleans has different reasons why recycling has been such a lacking area, and most of it is for a few reasons. The first reason is that there is not enough education surrounding recycling in this city which has also led to a lack of recycling bins that are clearly marked on Tulane’s campus but also in the middle of the city. Secondly, New Orleans unfortunately is a very hurricane-prone area during the early falls, leading to many disastrous and catastrophic damages throughout the city, ultimately halting the recycling program as it did for the latter third of 2021 after Hurricane Ida. Lastly, New Orleans is home to an influx of tourism each and every single year, which in turn will bring a lot of consumption and purchasing of products which ultimately adds to the waste that is being put out by the city, which can be hard to deal with when more people are making something that is already hard in your city with even more waste. The plan that I discussed was that of what the country of Germany did with its recycling initiative. Germany is the best country statistically with how it handles its recycling in Europe.

The diligent system Germany has put into place and the green dot system which regulates the number of packaging products can have, has allowed the citizens to adapt to a new way of living and organizing their waste when they are done consuming. Creating some color-coding scheme, as the Germans have, will allow for recycling in New Orleans to take a turn for the better, since this will give the citizens of New Orleans a form of structure they have never had on this subject. A big issue right now in the city is the lack of bins for the correct type of material, so people end up just giving up and throwing their recyclable material in the trash. Having clearly marked bins all next to one another for the many different materials will show people that disposing of their waste would be straightforward and not require any extra effort. Looking at the opposite side of the spectrum, the city may be very reluctant to change how it has been used all these years because it would take a more collective effort from everyone to start a new recycling initiative. This solution would greatly impact the city of New Orleans because it would give a structure that people have not had before. By outlining specifically where every different piece of recyclable material goes, it will leave no questions unanswered. Access to recycling has been a problem throughout the city, but implementing a system similar to Germany’s would make diversion more manageable and efficient than ever before.

This piece was edited by Jiayi Xu as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University. 

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