(Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

From 2017 through 2021, the city of New Orleans recycled just 3.1 percent of the waste that residents placed on the curb for pickup, according to data provided by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office. That means that 97 percent of collected waste ends up in the River Birch Landfill in Avondale. 

The city’s recycling rate, also called a diversion rate, is one-tenth of the national rate. According to the EPA, 32.1 percent of all municipal solid waste in the US was either recycled or composted in 2018. Some cities and states far exceed that number. San Francisco, for example, has boasted a diversion rate of 80 percent for nearly a decade. 

New Orleans’ diversion rate even lags behind the national average in 1960, when the country had a 6 percent diversion rate. 

The 3.1 percent figure doesn’t account for all of New Orleans’ waste, only the waste picked up by the city’s residential curbside trash and recycling program — roughly 909,000 tons over five years. Commercial properties, which have to hire private waste collection companies, aren’t included in the calculation. 

The particularly low diversion rate for 2021 — 1.7 percent — isn’t surprising, since the city suspended its recycling program altogether for the last third of the year. In September, following Hurricane Ida, the city cut recycling to focus on widespread trash and debris build-up around the city. Recycling resumed for roughly half the city earlier this month. The other half, downriver neighborhoods served by Metro Service Group, won’t have curbside recycling until the city finalizes a new waste contract, which officials hope to do in the first half of 2022. 

But the low diversion rate in every year going back to 2017 signals more systemic issues than the city’s recent waste pickup problems. At a Thursday City Council committee meeting, Sanitation Department director Matt Torri said that the explanation for that “very low” diversion rate is multifaceted, ranging from local buy-in to the changing global economics of recycling. 

To start, only 50 percent of eligible addresses actually participate in the city’s recycling program, Torri said. Even for the residents that do have recycling bins, there are a lot of limits on what can go in them, especially when compared to cities with the highest diversion rates.

New Orleans curbside recycling only accepts two out of the seven types of recyclable plastic. Like many cities, it doesn’t accept glass or operate a municipal composting program for yard clippings and food waste. Torri said that 25 to 30 percent of the items that actually make it to the recycling center have to be diverted to the landfill because they’re “contaminated” with materials that the facility doesn’t accept.

See what you can and cannot recycle on the city’s website.

Torri said the city’s recycling restrictions simply reflect what recycling centers — known as material recovery facilities, or MRFs — are willing to accept. 

“Right now, all of the city’s recyclable material goes to one processing facility in Jefferson Parish. They don’t accept glass, and there’s no plan for them to accept glass in the future.”

Torri stressed the importance of “single stream” recycling, meaning a single bin for all recycling, all dumped into the same trucks and all brought to the same facility. He said that although the city could hypothetically set up separate recycling just for glass, it would require the city to distribute thousands of new plastic bins and hire a whole new fleet of trucks to collect them.

“Running another fleet of trucks throughout the city for a whole separate collection in a lot of ways defeats the benefit of recycling glass,” he said. 

Torri said that for now, residents can bring their glass recycling to the city’s drop-off center on Elysian Fields on Saturday’s between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.

“I think we are committed to look to expand the drop-off model,” Torri said. 

In the long term, Torri said there are new facilities popping up across the country that can accept glass and other currently-restricted items as part of “single stream” recycling. He said the city is working to attract a company to open “a state of the art recycling processing facility to expand both what we accept when it comes to recycling and the volume of what we accept.”

“Certainly that’s not something that could happen overnight. That’s going to take significant investment by a corporation to come here and do that. But we’re actively pursuing that.”

The need for additional recycling facilities is not unique to New Orleans. U.S. recycling has been in somewhat of a crisis the last few years, largely caused by a boom in new plastic manufacturing and policy changes in China. 

“Recycling has changed a lot over the past 10 years,” Torri said.

For decades, a huge portion of US recycling was shipped overseas to China. But in 2018, the country started limiting the amount of foreign recycling it would accept. That forced the US to rely more on domestic processing facilities, which simply didn’t have the capacity to absorb all of the material that previously would have gone to China.

 “With China limiting its markets, everything stays domestic and there’s limited locations for where it can go,” Torri said.

At the same time, a boom in U.S. oil and gas production — a necessary ingredient in plastics manufacturing — has made new plastic cheaper than ever, and made it harder for recycled plastics to compete. 

“It used to be a business where our contractors would pick up recycling and actually get paid for the material when they brought it to the processing center,” Torri said “Now, it costs them five times the amount per load to take it to the processing facility than to take it to the landfill.”

Cities across the country have shut down or suspended their recycling programs in response to these changes. That almost happened in New Orleans in 2019, according to The Times-Picayune. Instead, the city put more restrictions on what items residents could put in their recycling bins. 

It appears that for New Orleans, the biggest limiting factor is the existence of a recycling facility that can process a large variety and quantity of items. But it’s unclear if such a facility will materialize.

In the meantime, Torri stressed getting more buy-in from residents for the existing curbside recycling program, expanding access to drop-off recycling centers and getting more residents to pay for private glass recycling and composting services. 

“It’s an evolving and changing environment when it comes to recycling. But I think there’s a commitment on the part of the city to do those programs, to bring those back and see them grow.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...