Free curbside recycling returned to New Orleans two months ago, and so far, 22 percent of city residents have signed up to participate.
recycling-bins-generic.jpgTimes-Picayune archiveIn its first couple of months of recycling, New Orleans has managed to divert roughly 2 percent of its waste from the landfill.
During the program's first six weeks, roughly 500 tons of recyclable material was taken from city curbsides to a processing center instead of a landfill, according to Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
While officials are pleased with results so far, New Orleans has a long way to go before it will draw comparisons to a city such as San Francisco, named the "greenest city" in the United States and Canada in a study released last week.
In its first couple of months of recycling, New Orleans has managed to divert roughly 2 percent of its waste from the landfill. In San Francisco, by contrast, 77 percent of the material set out on curbs is recycled rather than sent to landfills, according to Mark Westlund, the spokesperson for that city's environmental department.
That huge gulf may owe in part to different attitudes toward recycling in the two cities -- New Orleans, after all, had discussed dumping its curbside program because of low participation before Hurricane Katrina killed it.
But there are some practical factors that also blur the inter-city comparison.
The biggest one is that San Francisco accepts many more materials for recycling -- in particular, glass, food scraps and plant material -- that New Orleans does not. Those materials tend to outweigh the ones New Orleans does accept. A Times-Picayune story from 1999, when New Orleans' curbside program accepted glass and all residents received bins, estimated the city was recycling 15 percent of its waste stream.
There are smaller factors that depress recycling, too -- Berni notes that Mardi Gras generates a huge amount of waste, very little of which is recycled. And New Orleans still lacks curbside recycling in the French Quarter and the Central Business District. Berni said the service will extend to those areas.
Change brings results
Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that while New Orleans' recycling rates are low, they indicate a promising start. San Francisco, she said, also started out slowly when it first implemented a curbside program in the 1980s.
San Francisco's turning point, according to Westlund, was the "co-mingled" system introduced in 2000, which allows residents to dump all recyclables in one cart, rather than sorting them out. New Orleans' new program does not require separating materials.
Also, in 2009, recycling and composting became mandatory, which raised the participation of apartment buildings in the city from 20 percent to 80 percent. Before that law, an average of 400 tons of food scraps per day was composted. Today, an average of 600 tons are composted every day in San Francisco.
The relatively low rate of recycling here means that savings from landfill tipping fees are likely to be minimal for now. Under new rates negotiated by the Landrieu administration, the city pays $29.11 per ton to dump at the landfill. That means taxpayers have saved about $15,000 in tipping fees so far, and they can expect to save perhaps $150,000 in the program's first year.
But if recycling rates ever approached those of San Francisco, the annual savings on tipping fees would reach into the millions -- though the program's cost would surely rise as well.
Hoover said that asking people to register for the city service can discourage them from recycling. Berni noted that registration is not actually mandatory, but is encouraged by the mayor's office as a way of tracking participation.
Residents can sign up and request new bins online at recycle.nola.gov or fill out a form at City Hall. But materials still will be collected from the curb of any address eligible for regular trash pickup, in new bins or in the blue bins residents used before Katrina.
Education pays off
Other cities also have embarked on educational campaigns to encourage the habit of recycling.
"What was most successful in San Francisco was an ongoing, clear education about recycling," Hoover said. "Standing at a bus stop kiosk and staring at a poster might teach you something you didn't set out to look for."
Berni said that the City of New Orleans would continue to increase citizen awareness of the benefits of recycling, citing a partnership with Coca-Cola in which the soft-drink giant promotes the recycling program in store displays.
Hoover said that a "pay as you throw" plan -- in which your fee for trash pickup depends on the size of your garbage can -- can also encourage recycling. She said incentive programs also have been successful, such as a "recycle bank," that provides rewards for neighborhood residents based on how much the whole neighborhood recycles collectively.
"New Orleans has a wealth of history, resources and land worth protecting," Hoover said. "If you can help as an individual, it really adds up and makes a difference."
Curbside pickup never fully caught on in New Orleans, even before its suspension in the aftermath of the storm. The first program began in 1991. Ten years later, some officials were ready to dump it because it was costing too much money.
Harahan dropped its curbside program in 2000. Two years later, Slidell dropped its program, claiming the slim and declining participation rates, which had fallen to 25 percent, were not worth the cost of recycling.
Slidell, however, restarted its program in December, and Mandeville and Covington also have curbside programs. Officials could not provide detailed information on participation rates in those towns.