From the back of a flatbed truck on Claiborne Avenue on a Saturday morning, two men wearing neon safety vests unload 64-gallon plastic bins stamped with a fleur-de-lis. Those bins are designated for the city's curbside recycling services, which resume May 2 for the first time since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures swept recycling off city budgets and priorities.
At his second State of the City address April 28 inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's reminder that recycling would be back within days drew one of the biggest breaks for applause.
Before he took office in 2010, Landrieu established his Transition New Orleans team, which included the Sustainable Energy and Environmental Task Force, co-chaired by Global Green's New Orleans director Beth Galante and Beverly Wright, director of Dillard University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. On its board were representatives from the Alliance for Affordable Energy, the Sierra Club, farmers markets, green builders and universities. No. 1 on their agenda: resurrecting the city's curbside recycling program, "a really fundamental need to show that the city was serious about working towards sustainability," Galante says. "With the new administration, it really was a sea change in attitude on that. It made it a commitment from Day 1."
Landrieu took those recommendations, presented in the task force's April 2010 report, and managed deals with two of the city's garbage contractors — Metro Disposal and Richard's Disposal. By 2011, Richard's, which serves parts of Mid-City, Uptown and Algiers, agreed to drop its rate ($17.99 a month per household from its previous $22). Metro, which serves Mid-City, Lakeview and the 9th Ward, also agreed to lower its rate ($15.99 per month from $18.15). Both contracts include recycling pickup. "This has been a long time coming post-Katrina, and we're really happy we're able to add (recycling) when we renegotiated the contracts," says Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni.
But the program isn't citywide yet. The French Quarter, Central Business District and Warehouse District will have to continue relying on private recycling haulers like SDT Waste & Debris and Phoenix Recycling, which charge a fee. Berni says the city wants to expand its recycling program, but "at this point, we're in the very beginning stages of making this happen."
David McDonough founded Phoenix Recycling in 1991 — but 2011 marks a bittersweet 20th anniversary, he says. Now that the city has introduced its recycling plan, private haulers that stepped up post-Katrina to give residents a recycling option have to scale back. "It certainly does take away a lot of business, and that part of it's bad for us, but we've said all along we'd rather go out of business and see citywide recycling return than remain one of the few options around," McDonough says. "It's kind of mixed blessings. We're happy to see it, but by the same token it's going to change what we do."
The business has had to adapt before. Phoenix's business model changed in 1995, when the city contracted Browning Ferris Industries (BFI) for curbside recycling pickup for $1 a month per household on top of a $12 garbage collection rate. In 2001 the contract was renewed. But Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures effectively killed budget opportunities to reintroduce the program. BFI's Airline Highway recycling processing plant was destroyed, and city funds and attention were directed elsewhere.
In 2007, Phoenix reopened its curbside program, and the City Council adopted a resolution in support of a municipal pickup program. Then-sanitation director Veronica White, an appointee of former Mayor Ray Nagin, insisted recycling couldn't fit anywhere in the city's budget. (When asked if the city had any interest at all in bringing back the program, even if funds were available, White told Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, "Why would we continue to waste taxpayers' money doing something that has been proven not to work rather than to do something that will work for the entire community? Why do that?")
In 2009, the Sierra Club's Darryl Malek-Wiley led the NOLA Recycles campaign, a grassroots effort urging candidates for citywide elections to adopt a sustainable waste management plan. The campaign gave candidates a six-point platform, highlighted by the return of curbside recycling. (City Council District A candidate Susan Guidry and Landrieu submitted letters of support, pledging a commitment to the platform.)
Once in office, Guidry adopted recycling plans for City Council through Phoenix Recycling in hopes of motivating New Orleans City Hall to institute a citywide program. Last August, the city opened a recycling drop-off site at 2829 Elysian Fields Ave., followed by an announcement of an in-the-works curbside recycling program, pending contract negotiations with waste haulers. (The Elysian Fields drop-off location will remain open, for now. Residents can drop off not only their recyclables that otherwise would go in the bin, but also e-waste — computers and other electronics bound for the landfill.) But Landrieu's announcement offiically put a curbside recycling pickup program on the city's budget for the first time in more than five years.
In February, the city created a website to register for recycling (recycle.nola.gov) as an opt-in program — residents would have to register via the website or call or fax an application to City Hall. The city anticipates 20,000 participants in the program's first week (despite a persistent rumor spreading via Facebook and Twitter that only 12,000 residents had signed up and 20,000 registrants were needed to give the program a green light). Galante and other task force members are concerned the new 64-gallon bins may be too large for some residents. Berni says people can use the blue bins made available before Katrina if they still have them.
"We are really encouraging people, even if they're using the blue bins from before Katrina, to go and sign up or call the office," Berni says. "We just really want to have a solid accounting of participation. We're seeing it pick up. We're confident once the program begins and people see it happening, we'll get a greater response for people to get carts."
Why does the city want recycling, and why now? The task force didn't overlook those questions, Galante says. "The community had always been very clear it was a high priority," she says. "It was just frustrating the last administration was not willing to try to explore innovative ways to bring the citywide program back."
The city says a major citywide recycling effort will significantly reduce landfill waste — which not only is finite, it's effectively dumping a potential cash flow. "Recyclable materials have a market value, and we're losing a significant economic opportunity if we're just hauling stuff off to the landfill," Galante says.
The task force, with input from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, hotels and businesses, says the city's lack of sustainability efforts also made it an unattractive destination. "We were losing conferences, and frankly, we will continue to lose conference opportunities, because so many corporations and professional organizations have very basic sustainability criteria in host cities," Galante says. "The fact that the city didn't have a recycling program during the last five years absolutely damaged our ability to attract national and international visitors and organizations and conferences. 'Does the city have a composting program? Are there LEED-certified hotels? Are there green taxicabs?' Really up until this point, it had been 'no, no, no' to everything."
Metro and Richard's will haul recyclables to the Recycling Foundation of Baton Rouge, one of a handful of recycling processing plants in the state (and the closest to New Orleans). The city's challenge now, Galante says, is how to run the recycling program without its own local materials recovery facility (or MRF, pronounced "murf"), where recyclable materials are received, separated and processed before hitting the recyclables market. If New Orleans had a MRF, Galante says, there would be job (and business) opportunities in the burgeoning "green" field while providing a service few others handle. "That type of facility would create a small business, potentially, and several good, sustainable jobs, and create additional revenue streams," she says. "We could market our recyclable materials outside of the state and the country."
Phoenix will continue to serve commercial customers and residents in Orleans, St. Bernard, St. Tammany and St. Charles parishes, and it has started document imaging services to help customers go paperless. McDonough says the company also is looking into potential glass recycling options for hotels, restaurants and bars (though the state has no recycled glass processors).
"We've been around almost 20 years — we've had as many as 20 employees, a bunch of trucks and a bunch of baling equipment, and as few as one employee and one truck," McDonough says. "We'll end up somewhere in between."