“I’ll say something radical—I think that litter in the street and the waste in the trash can are the same thing,” says Anjelina Durio, a New Orleans native and intern with an environmental design firm. Either way, she explains, you’re making a mess—it’s only that with litter, the consumer must see the mess, while throwing something “away” takes the waste out of sight.
“Being a kid during Hurricane Katrina, and noticing how waste is so impactful, yet hazardous, because it’s not being addressed… I’m as interested in waste now as I was when I was in middle school,” says Durio.
Litter and trash are hallmarks of the American urban experience. It doesn’t matter in terms of public perception that living in urban areas is far more carbon-efficient—cities are “dirty”, and the countryside is “clean”. Though the average New York City resident has a carbon footprint that is roughly one-third the size of the average American’s, we all know that Brooklyn smells (as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie poetically put it) “of sun-warmed garbage.”
And we know that despite the jasmine and magnolia trees, New Orleans sometimes doesn’t smell much better. According to City Sanitation Commissioner Cynthia Sylvain-Lear, New Orleans trash collectors hauled 171,179 tons of waste to the landfill in 2017, a figure which does not include commercial waste (residential recycling, by contrast, was 8,727.9 tons). The two largest commercial districts in New Orleans, the CBD and French Quarter, each have separate contracts with waste disposal companies, who provide twice-daily pickup, seven days a week to clean the streets and pick up trash. In other words, to keep the French Quarter halfway out of squalor, the city of New Orleans uses taxpayer money to manage Sisyphus-like upkeep and litter cleanup.
Not only does this litter result in lucrative waste management contracts designed to keep the areas around the Convention Center and French Quarter clean, it is also a public health hazard.
“I was completely disturbed… the rats were all through just about every business on Bourbon Street,” says Durio, who used to bartend on Bourbon Street.
“In the back, where they store the trash, there’s a rat problem, I mean a major rat problem,” she continues.
In addition to attracting rats, debris such as used tires can become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which in turn can carry diseases that have migrated north from the tropics due to climate change. Mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus have already been found in Orleans Parish this year. Though the Mosquito Control Board provides free pickup for used tires, not enough residents seem to know that the program exists.
Overall, the average American now produces over four pounds of waste a day, or about 1,500 pounds of waste per year. About 30 percent of this waste is diverted from landfill (by recycling and composting), by the EPA’s reporting, though other sources allege that this number is artificially high. The New Orleans Environmental Advisory Committee to city council reports that in New Orleans, only 5 percent of all residential waste is diverted from landfills, though other American cities average as high as forty percent.
Aside from polluting the surrounding soil, water and air, landfills are also significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Landfills are the third highest contributor to methane emissions in the US (a more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide), after livestock and powerplant emissions. And waste that ends up in storm drains meets an equally bad fate—as it all eventually flows into Lake Pontarchtrain or the Mississippi River, each already infamous for their pollution.
Though New Orleans had a curbside recycling program before Hurricane Katrina, collection was stopped after the storm and did not resume for six years, until 2011. Enrollment in residential collection currently hovers around 30 percent, despite that most homes and apartment buildings are eligible to enroll at no extra cost to them. The fee for recycling and trash pickup is levied on all households in their water bill, regardless of whether they enroll in curbside recycling. This program includes paper, metal and plastic but excludes glass, disappointing for some in a city that appreciates its…bottled goods.
“We piloted including glass in the curbside pickup … But glass pickup is expensive… we do accept it at the city recycling events though, twice a month. And that has been very effective.” explains New Orleans Sanitation Commissioner Sylvain-Lear, who has led the Department of Sanitation since 2010. Sylvain-Lear has worked for the city for 20 years. Prior to that she worked for the oil and gas industry.
After a brief pause, the recycling center on Elysian Fields ,which hosts the aforementioned recycling events, has begun once more to accept clean glass products for recycling, as well as compost. The compost program began last month after a partnership between the city and the Compost Network. The event also includes regular recycling items accepted at curbside collection (plastic types 1-7, metal, paper and cardboard), as well as electronic waste and Mardi-gras beads, which are then resold by Arc. Sylvain-Lear reported happily that attendance at the events have seen increasing participation.
Jane Patton, a co-founder of No-Waste Nola, stresses that preventing waste at the source as the best way to eliminate municipal waste from landfills. The organization is working with the city to develop a zero-waste plan for New Orleans and advocates for using single-use disposable items as a last resort, relying on reusable cups, bags and containers instead.
The Environmental Advocacy Committee, which advises the city council and works closely with the Department of Sanitation, has included education as part of its efforts to increase participation among residents in waste-diversion programing. Their plan for waste-reduction also includes recommendations for stricter fees for littering and dumping, recycling for parades, phasing out polysterene (Styrofoam) in New Orleans, and imposing disposable bag fees. Recycling education has been added to curriculums in Orleans Parish Schools. This effort includes workshops for teachers. These initiatives are part of the city’s resiliency plan, which aims to get the city to a 50 percent diversion rate by 2030, and a 100 percent diversion rate by 2050. The plan can only work if citizens participate in recycling, compost and waste prevention efforts.
The City of New Orleans also introduced an ordinance in 2017 to “amend and reordain Article III of Chapter 138 of the Code of the City of New Orleans (Solid Waste).” The ordinance includes policies to reduce office waste and asks all Orleans parish employees to enroll their home in curbside recycling. Though largely toothless, a training on the ordinance will be included in the orientation of all new city employees. This serves to create a class of citizens who supposedly will be better informed on issues of waste diversion and recycling.
However, there are clear systemic issues that make meeting the waste-prevention goals difficult. The Environmental Advisory Committee to city council report on trash and litter includes contradictory statements in their guiding principles —recognizing the necessity of healthy marine and riverine ecosystems, while also recognizing that “many of the industries that are vital to the city’s economic wellbeing rely on the extraction of resources… oil, gas, and seafood.” It has been widely reported that as the demand for oil continues to fall, plastics are now the oil industry’s future revenue source.
“A long time ago, the State of Louisiana decided… that we were going to be very friendly to oil and gas. We have a lot of flat land, we have oil and gas and we have a lot of fresh water…Our state economic development office decided that it was going to actively pursue oil and gas money,” Patton says. And this oil and gas money is now certainly inclusive of plastics. Patton points out that many products are deliberately over-packaged—this adds revenue for plastic manufacturers, while taxpayers bear the cost of recycling services.
Meanwhile, industrial tax incentives in Louisiana mean that petrochemical companies are exempt from paying property taxes—a boon to corporate revenue that exempts them from paying into local public schools and other infrastructure. The Advocate recently reported that this program cost Louisiana 16 billion dollars within a ten year period and that the law was only recently amended to give local tax authorities the ability to veto the tax exemption.
While the state lures petrochemical refineries to Louisiana and the US carries on a romance with single-use products, New Orleans, in all its boozy glory, also faces unique challenges in preventing waste.
To-go cups, a staple for New Orleans’ open-container laws, means that the hospitality industry has an outsize plastics habit. There are also currently only a few public recycling receptacles in New Orleans, even in to-go cup hotspots such as Bourbon Street and Frenchman Street, leaving the streets dirtier, and funneling more plastic waste to landfills. And as businesses are not required to recycle, let alone find ways to incorporate reusable cups, addressing this waste stream will be a huge issue in the years to come.
“If there was just a little bit of policy, a little bit of regulation, maybe a little bit of [behavioral] deviation, we would see less of a rodent problem, and less pollution,” says Durio.
In the face of so much trash and pollution, it can be hard to see light at the end of the (filthy, litter strewn) tunnel. However, it’s important to remember that plastics as we know it, and the single-use culture that developed around it, have only been around for about 60 years. And despite the overwhelming hurdles before us, if 2018 has taught us nothing else, it’s that crazy sh*t is possible.
Editor’s note: Be sure to read our other pieces on environmental issues!