Trash to Treasure

Recycling is more than a great way to put durable products back into use and save landfill space. It's also good economic development. So why aren't New Orleans and Jefferson Parish doing it?



At age 42, Tommy Barrow has the physical build of a college athlete 20 years his junior and the grit and wisdom of a man who works 10- and 12-hour days in the Louisiana sun. On a recent afternoon, he parks his black pickup truck near a rusty chain-link fence bordered by a row of vintage bathtubs and jumps out, hesitantly surveying the area. What he probably notices first are the bathtubs -- in baby blue, pink, ivory, faded sea-foam green, even lavender. The tubs are filled with dirt and flowers of an even brighter palette that politely charm the corroded metal against which they bloom.

On the other side of this enclosure are more tubs, both out-of-date and slightly more modern, though empty. Several of their lavatory counterparts sit neatly in metal bunks, nestled three and four shelves high -- a collection of sinks in a variety of shapes and sizes and in a similar range of colors.

On the ground among the rows of naked bathroom furnishings lie stacks of roof tiles and shingles, bundled and bedded next to all manner of random wood trim and molding, along with assorted doors and window panes. Architectural free agents basking in the bright sunlight, these salvaged building supplies patiently await adoption by customers like Barrow, who will take them home for reuse in remodeling and rebuilding projects.

As Barrow steps up to the opening in the fence, however, a younger man emerges and says, "Sorry, The Green Project's closed for today. We've got too much work to do." Barrow inquires about buying shingles in bulk, and the young man brusquely rattles off a price as he walks away toward a nearby warehouse.

The Green Project, situated on a large, open gravel lot adjacent to the railroad tracks near the intersection of Franklin and St. Claude avenues, is an environmentally friendly outpost amid a neighborhood still struggling to manage damaged, deserted homes and debris-ridden streets.

The Green Project operates a recycling store that accepts donated building materials in usable condition for resale. The organization also offers community educational programs and environmental activities, such as organic gardening classes and tips on incorporating recyclables into artwork. Reselling high-quality salvaged building materials -- vintage and modern -- at affordable prices is one of the primary ways in which The Green Project, according to its mission, "is dedicated to helping the environment by reducing the amount of usable materials placed in the landfills or disposed of improperly."

This is Barrow's first time at The Green Project. A native of New Orleans, he grew up in the Carrollton area but moved to Texas in March. He and his wife commute from Texas to New Orleans -- spending two or three weeks here and one week there -- as they help his brother-in-law rebuild rental properties damaged during Katrina. Barrow is an independent contractor and does all the rebuilding himself ("minus the electric stuff," he says) while his brother-in-law works offshore.

Right now, he's working on a townhouse in eastern New Orleans. "The main problem on Bayou View Court is the roof," he says. "My brother hadn't really looked at it yet, and I went up there today and touched it with my finger, and you know, it just went straight through, like nothing."

Barrow normally goes to Lowe's for building supplies, but working with his brother's small budget, he came to The Green Project to buy recycled materials because it will save money. Barrow notes that he tries to recycle building materials himself when he can. "It's not much, but what I can get I put to the side for another project, yes I do. We are on a budget."

When asked if he knew about The Green Project's other programs, Barrow was surprised to learn that the group promotes many recycling projects.

Seen by many as a post-Katrina beacon in local recycling efforts, The Green Project has become an increasingly important resource for people and organizations seeking information about recycling in New Orleans -- particularly in light of the city's anemic response to recycling concerns after the storm. Sometimes The Green Project becomes so overloaded with donated materials it has to shut down for a few days to sort through all of it.

Partnering with Tulane University's Office of Environmental Affairs and MWH consultants, The Green Project helped compile a comprehensive, easy-to-use directory of places that accept household recyclables in the New Orleans area. The guide, Recycle New Orleans!, is available online at

Updated in November 2006, the directory lists recycling locations citywide by material. With it, you can find a place to drop off most recyclables, from aluminum to Mardi Gras beads. Unfortunately, some recyclable items, such as glass, still are not accepted anywhere in town.

Like most New Orleanians these days, Barrow does not sort and deliver his own recyclables. "Aluminum cans, I know people collect them and bring them in for money, so if I'm in a neighborhood drinking a cold drink, I'll usually set it to the side (on the curb) where people can pick them up," he says.

Obviously, that's not quite the "curbside recycling" program he had while living temporarily in Baton Rouge before moving to Texas. In Baton Rouge, Barrow had a bin and regularly scheduled pickups for aluminum cans and plastic -- at a nominal fee. The city subsidized most of the program's cost.

"That's the thing with New Orleans," Barrow says. "[The city] doesn't want to spend money to make money." He says when companies and residents see the absence of a citywide recycling program here, they're not interested in returning or moving to New Orleans. "The money [the city] relies on now is from tourism. They're still slow in the process. It's not on the people -- it's on the politics," he says.

The Green Project believes the city should relaunch its household recycling program. Despite its work on the household recycling directory and buzz about its willingness to accept recyclables, The Green Project's mission is not to manage household recyclables.

"Household recycling is in line with our mission, but it's kind of a conundrum when we get more and more people bringing recyclables here," says Angie Cavanaugh, deputy director at The Green Project. "We will take them only because the city won't do it."

While The Green Project accepts many household recyclables, the nonprofit also has to pay $300 per week to have someone haul them away. "The net environmental value is negative when you have someone driving from Uptown to drop off their newspapers," Cavanaugh says. "It's really frustrating to hear that someone drives from Metairie to bring their stuff to The Green Project." Still, she says, the "job here is to prevent things from going into the landfill. Every decision we make is based on that."

While household recyclables put a strain on The Green Project, the organization has ample resources to handle donated yet usable architectural items, construction materials and even latex paint -- all of which will find new uses in projects such as Barrow's. Donations are accepted daily, and pickups can be scheduled for large quantities.

Liz Davey, director of Tulane's Office of Environmental Affairs, has worked closely with The Green Project on the citywide directory. She credits the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs with starting the directory more than five years ago as a supplement to the city's now-defunct curbside recycling program. After Katrina, Davey used the old directory to locate facilities for Tulane's recyclables. The updated directory was made possible largely through the efforts of Tulane students who tracked down open facilities.

Prior to Katrina, Tulane brought its recyclables to two facilities that were too badly damaged in the storm to reopen. One, BFI, also known as Allied Waste, was the materials recovery facility that managed New Orleans' curbside recycling contract.

Davey says BFI was the primary facility in the New Orleans area and could handle large amounts of mixed bottles and cans. Its closure was a big loss to Tulane as well as the city. Tulane can still recycle because it has the trucks and staff to do it. But, like anyone else seeking local recycling options after the storm, Tulane must divide its recyclables and coordinate transportation to multiple facilities in order to recycle as much as possible.

Tulane and The Green Project aren't the only organizations relying heavily on the directory to inform people about recycling options. The city dropped its curbside recycling program, despite objections from many residents and organizations, then distributed the directory with its new garbage cans.

When asked why the city's curbside recycling program has not yet resumed, Veronica White, director of the Department of Sanitation, cites closure of the BFI facility as well as the city's fiscal straits. She recommends that anyone interested in recycling use the directory, which is available on the city's Web site:

Prior to Katrina, only 22 percent of New Orleans households utilized the recycling program, paying a small monthly fee for the service, White says. In addition, the Sewerage and Water Board charged its customers $1 a month (which was removed after Katrina) to help defray the costs of the service. The city was billed $4.5 million a year for the recycling program based on the total number of households in the city, even though the vast majority did not recycle, White says. Post-Katrina, the city no longer has the money to do that.

"Everything costs us," she says. "We have to prioritize, and our priorities now are affordable housing and economic development. These are the top priorities. Any money coming down the pipeline will focus on economic development."

However, White says, the city is doing something about recycling.

In a letter sent to anyone who inquires about recycling, White writes that the city has consistently recycled storm debris, including household hazardous waste, electronic waste such as TVs and microwaves, and white goods such as refrigerators, washers and dryers. The letter also states, "The city does not have plans to resume curbside collection of recyclable materials in 2007. However, the city is planning recycling drives or drop-off dates in 2007." Two such citywide drives were held April 14 and July 28 in conjunction with Jefferson Parish.

"I'm asking everyone to be proactive, to utilize the directory and be patient until we are able to restart the program," she says. "It's not an easy job. It entails not only solid waste but also demolition and debris. We are working on it."

For now, New Orleans residents who want to recycle get a new garbage can, a recycling directory and one day every three months to transport all of their recyclables to a centralized location.

Wendy King, chair of the Sierra Club New Orleans Group Recycling Committee, believes the city's efforts post-Katrina are unacceptable. "This is not a long-term solution. People are not going to let trash and recyclables build up for three months to haul them across town and wait in line. 'We're working on it' is not acceptable," she says.

King points out that while one of the city's top priorities might be bringing people back into the area, one thing people are going to consider when contemplating a return is whether it has a functioning recycling program.

"You're talking about potential returnees who have relocated to places with better services -- like Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Memphis and Houston," King says. "Most have very good recycling city services that are well-established, on top of a lot of other things we don't have. The city would rather focus on bringing people back, but this is a reason that people won't come back here. They'll think, 'I'm not going to move to a city that has shrugged off recycling.'"

Recycling household waste is a quality-of-life issue, King says, and when people or businesses consider moving here, one question they ask is, "Does this city have a viable, functioning recycling program?"

Several neighborhoods appear more than ready to resume curbside recycling, and the Sierra Club has suggested that the city try phasing in the program. The group has received nothing more than a vague response: "The city is reviewing the Sierra Club's recommendations of implementing a phased-in curbside recycling program in areas of the city that were less impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Your recommendation will be taken into consideration as the city moves towards re-instating curbside recycling in 2008," a letter from the city says.

King acknowledges that New Orleans had more damage than other places, but she notes that other hard-hit parishes aren't "whining about how things are tough and we can't do what we used to."

"What you get from the Nagin Administration is this line that, 'Oh, things are bad. We're still trying to get on our feet.' They're telling the public, 'We're open for business,' but telling citizens, 'We're on the edge, we don't have people back, we can't do what we used to,'" King says. "This is a priority and it needs to be addressed. You can't expect people to come back to the city when one of its most important services is off the table. I don't care if they tack a $1 fee on our water bills if it pays for a good program. We want a functioning recycling program. We're getting a lot of stalling from the city. It's a lot of lip service and no real action. They have no real plan to bring it back."

The city's recycling problem is twofold: In addition to financial constraints, the closure of BFI has left city government without a recovery facility that can handle the load. No one can give a definitive reason as to why BFI has no plans to reopen and why no other facilities have taken its place.

"I don't understand why the city hasn't put a request for proposals out," King says. An RFP is an invitation from the city for contractors to submit proposals for a city-sponsored service, in this case a curbside recycling program. One open question is why no one has come forward to replace BFI and whether that has anything to do with New Orleans' market for recycling -- or its lack thereof.

White's comments suggest that without a recycling facility, there can't be a curbside program. Nevertheless, one local organization, Phoenix Recycling, has decided to take matters into its own hands. Formerly only a commercial recycler, the company this month began a curbside recycling program as well for subscribers in all neighborhoods of New Orleans. The company, started by Dave McDonough in 1991, originally handled both commercial and residential recycling but later reduced its business to commercial only when the city negotiated a contract for curbside pickup. Citing the need for a citywide recycling program, the company started its own.

The new subscription service is available to any New Orleans resident. For $15 a month, Phoenix will pick up recyclables from private residences every other week. Sign-up directions, schedules and pickup information are available online at

Phoenix will accept plastic numbers one through seven (the number refers to the type of plastic and should be printed in the triangular recycling symbol on or near the bottom of the item you wish to recycle), aluminum and bi-metal containers, newspaper, cardboard and mixed paper, which includes junk mail, magazines, catalogs, cereal boxes and printer paper. Most recyclables will be picked up and transported by the Recycling Foundation in Baton Rouge to its processing plant, while paper likely will be taken to the SP paper recycling plant, a local recycling facility that only handles paper, cardboard, newspapers and magazines. SP Recycling reopened its doors after Katrina, but because it doesn't accept most household recyclables, its clientele is primarily made up of local businesses wishing to recycle large amounts of office paper and similar supplies.

"The Recycling Foundation in Baton Rouge is paying a price per ton on the material, minus the cost of transportation," says Steven O'Connor, director of residential services for Phoenix. "So we'll just be breaking even. That's why the cost is so high to start. When you take a commercial truck and commercial drivers and insure them and pay them ... there's some money for the material after, but not much."

O'Connor says that the more people participate, the lower the monthly fee will become. "We don't plan to profit on [residential] curbside. Our goal is to lower more to do more," he says. The company is working on getting the word out about the program and increasing participation in order to make it more affordable. So far, response has been positive, says O'Connor, with new subscribers emailing and signing up every five to 10 minutes throughout the day.

Some residents believe the city should cover the cost of recycling. Barrow doesn't think most people would pay $15 a month for curbside pickup when utility and other bills already are high. "A lot of people think they pay enough with tax, and what it really is for a lot of folks are their [utility] bills. Some folks paid $100 a month before (the storm) and now they pay maybe $300 to $400 a month. Who can afford that? That's rent money. A lot of people don't look at [recycling] like that. They deal with life itself first."

Meanwhile, Steven Cheatham, vice president of Recycling Foundation of Baton Rouge, disputes the city's claim that no other company is interested in opening a large local recycling facility. "There are people willing to come in," Cheatham says. "That's the misconception. We're all, as suppliers, interested in your area. That's the disconnect with people. They think no facility, no contract. That's backwards thinking. The minute they put that bid out, a contractor would open a facility. There are a number of people that would bid that contract."

Cheatham, whose organization has the materials recovery facility for Baton Rouge's curbside recycling contract, says if the city of New Orleans were to issue a call for proposals, the winning bidder would factor the cost of a recycling facility into its price and then build it. "An RFP is the type of bid where they allow more negotiating after the fact," Cheatham explains. "What an RFP does is allow (the city and the recycling contractors) to negotiate. If I won that bid, I'd spend my own money and get started. The minute they awarded that contract, I'd have a facility."

The problem, he says, is that unless the city issues a curbside recycling contract first, it's not going to have a facility. "It's like saying I want a pro football team but I can't do it until I have a stadium. But if you want someone to come and build a stadium and then you have no team, someone's going to be upset. To build a facility, it costs money. I can't go down and open a facility of that magnitude without a guarantee of tonnage."

Cheatham says that neither Jefferson Parish nor Orleans Parish has put out an RFP to date. Because most of Jefferson Parish's population has returned, it is in better shape than Orleans to resume a curbside recycling program, he says.

"Orleans has a different situation given the population -- it's related to pricing. Because 90 percent of Jefferson Parish came back, when I go to bid, I'll have a good concept of how much material will be there," Cheatham says. "With Orleans, only half the population came back. Well, regular thinking would figure that then you'd get about half the recycling. But did the half that didn't recycle come back or the half that does? There's no way to know that until I run trucks up and down the street. It's a Catch-22 in New Orleans."

Cheatham also confirms White's policy of issuing recycling contracts based on total households in the city, not on households that participated in the program. It's the way recyclers do business, he says. His Recycling Foundation volunteered trucks for transporting the recyclables from the April 14 and July 28 citywide drives to Baton Rouge for processing.

When asked what would happen to Phoenix's residential program should the city decide to resume curbside recycling itself, O'Connor says Phoenix would be very interested in bidding on such a program. He says another reason his program has to start with such a high monthly fee is to cover initial costs and equipment right away. "We're trying to start this without sinking a viable company," he says. "Our business model shows that we won't make any money on it. We're hoping to do it and break even. We can't rely on money from curbside because it could evaporate any day."

Katherine Costanza, assistant director of Environmental Affairs for Jefferson Parish, says participation in the recent recycling drives was very good, despite some rainy weather. Participation was almost equal in both parishes, with only slightly more people bringing materials from Jefferson.

The total amount of recyclables collected from both parishes in the first drive reached nearly 44,000 pounds, Costanza says -- a good indication that future drives would be successful. This amount actually was doubled at the July 28 event, with Jefferson Parish bringing roughly 56,800 pounds and New Orleans weighing in at about 33,000 pounds -- totaling nearly 45 tons collected. The next drive scheduled for New Orleans will be held Sept. 8.

Currently, the Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs is working with MWH Consultants, the third hand in the recycling directory triumvirate, to re-evaluate its recycling options. Part of a global environmental engineering, construction and strategic consulting company, MWH's New Orleans office is conducting a municipal recycling study to determine what alternatives may exist for reducing the amount of solid waste being disposed of in the Jefferson Parish Sanitary Landfill.

"As part of the study, MWH screened and surveyed 11 other municipalities, similar in size to Jefferson Parish, to determine what recycling activities have been successful, and general guidance for enhancing the Jefferson Parish recycling program," says Emery Myers, senior engineer and coordinator of the recent citywide recycling drive.

Based on the alternatives presented by MWH, the Jefferson Parish Recycling Task Force Committee will recommend recycling options to the parish council, Meyers says. A recycling drop-off event was one of the short-term recommendations. Other options under review include keeping the curbside program the way it was before Katrina, keeping curbside but changing the frequency of collection or the type of commodities collected, replacing curbside with drop-off sites and involving local schools in the program. Still other options include green waste and composting collections.

The committee and MWH also are evaluating factors such as convenience to residents, participation rates, ease of implementation, costs, potential end markets and projected reduction in the solid waste stream as part of the overall look at parishwide recycling.

Steve Villavaso, an environmental attorney and adjunct professor in the urban planning department at University of New Orleans, says the solution to the local recycling problem is tied to the marketplace: "The way to make recycling work is to make the numbers work. Once a request is asked of the industry, people will come up with a number for the cost."

Right now, he says, "recycling doesn't pay for itself because the market is pretty depressed. "The highest value commodity in recycling is aluminum, but a lot of people do it on their own so it doesn't show up in the market. So the highest value then is newspaper, but there's so much of it the market's depressed. You have to create a situation where we need more newspaper, like making recycled paper mandatory at publications."

Villavaso believes there are ways to improve the market, however. "One way is to force people to recycle," he says. "It puts recyclables in the system and the market responds. Some communities have mandatory recycling and people pay for it."

New Orleans actually has a rich history of recycling programs, Villavaso adds. A decade ago the city had a very successful pilot program that led to a permanent curbside recycling program. He says that, at the time, there was a small recycling center in the city but that "the industry never did build a materials recycling facility" big enough to handle all materials from the entire city.

"Every community can't expect to have its own MRF, just like every community can't expect to have its own landfill," he says, adding that is why the area needs regional solutions. "At one time there was a very large facility in Walker, about an hour away from New Orleans, that was servicing about a 10-parish area."

Another problem with relying solely on market forces, Villavaso says, is that recyclables still cost money. "A lot of studies show it is cheaper to put things in the landfill. The reason recycling is more expensive is because we haven't educated people on the importance, we haven't found a regional solution and we haven't worked on the market. The flip side is, I think recycling will pay for itself in the long run. The more you recycle, the more the market responds, and then the more we can get public pressure at the legislative level."

Like King, Villavaso believes that a good recycling program plays an integral role in the health and vitality of a community.

"Recycling makes monetary sense, environmental sense and economic development sense because it attracts businesses," he says. "Businesses are not always looking for the cheapest solution, but the right solution. Without a recycling program, the city is at a competitive disadvantage to other communities. It's really an important factor when looking to relocate."

When asked how the community can get a recycling program back up and running, Villavaso says, "The key to recycling is education. Start a buzz. Say, 'Hey, there's support for a pilot program. It's gonna cost money, maybe $5 to $10 a month, but let's see what the real advantages are. Is this part of the solution? Let's not send so much to the landfill.'"

That is exactly what Phoenix Recycling is doing on its own, largely in response to the Sierra Club, neighborhood groups and other advocates. If Phoenix can get a program off the ground and increase participation, the cost to individual households will go down.

Villavaso also cites studies when he says that as long as people talk about recycling and circulate information about it, enthusiasm stays elevated. But the moment people stop talking about it, participation dwindles. "That's what successful programs do. That's what New Orleans did," he says. "It's a part of educating. Keeping the recycling idea in people's minds is how you keep a program successful.

"We need to ask ourselves if we can use this as an economic development tool to attract businesses and improve our quality of life. And isn't that what it's all about? It's about making a better city."

A curbside recycling program could dramatically reduce the - amount of refuse dumped in our landfills, which makes - environmental sense. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • A curbside recycling program could dramatically reduce the amount of refuse dumped in our landfills, which makes environmental sense.
As part of its recycling efforts, The Green Project accepts - donated architectural elements, sinks and bathtubs, latex - paint, lumber and other items salvaged from - construction, renovation and demolition sites, then sells - them to people who can use them in rebuilding or - refurbishing their home. - SARAH ANDERT
  • Sarah Andert
  • As part of its recycling efforts, The Green Project accepts donated architectural elements, sinks and bathtubs, latex paint, lumber and other items salvaged from construction, renovation and demolition sites, then sells them to people who can use them in rebuilding or refurbishing their home.
The Green Project accepts most kinds of household - recyclables, but only because the city has no program. - Before the last citywide drop-off recycling day, The - Green Project closed its recycling bins and encouraged - people to participate in the citywide effort to - demonstrate the need for an ongoing service. - SARAH ANDERT
  • Sarah Andert
  • The Green Project accepts most kinds of household recyclables, but only because the city has no program. Before the last citywide drop-off recycling day, The Green Project closed its recycling bins and encouraged people to participate in the citywide effort to demonstrate the need for an ongoing service.

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