A Deeper Dumpster Dive

Jesse Baum, bigeasymagazine.com

Last month, while looking into waste and recycling in New Orleans, multiple friends and bedfellows alike told me the same thing – the city trashes its recycling. They each claimed, with high degrees of certainty, that they had seen city garbage trucks picking up residents’ recycling bins and throwing them into garbage trucks, to be compacted and landfilled like… garbage.

Perhaps not all the time, some hedged. But sometimes.

While researching for the piece, I found out one definition of “sometimes.”  Jane Patton, one of the founders of No Waste Nola informed me over tea that though New Orleans claims to recycle plastic types 1-7, only types 1 and 2 are processed – the other types are simply thrown away after they are sorted. When I spoke with Cynthia Sylvain-Lear, the New Orleans Sanitation Commissioner herself, to clarify this information, she denied the charge, insisting that it is in the New Orleans contracts that ALL plastic picked up by the collectors is recycled.

Every last polymer.

More or less.

Plastics come in different “types,” most commonly 1-7, which refer to their chemical makeup. After crude oil is refined via distillation, it can be combined with other chemicals to make products suited for our every fleeting need. Some become squeezable bottles, some are more often made into takeout containers, or become liner film for paper coffee cups (which, by the way, are NOT recyclable). Styrofoam is actually polystyrene (type 6) which is puffed with air as it is manufactured.

To my surprise, it turns out that even “film” type plastics, as opposed to “rigid” plastics (think cling-film or plastic bags, vs plastic bottles) are technically recyclable (though not via New Orleans curbside recycling). It’s just that it’s a headache to process them. One “bale” of plastic bags is equal to about one million plastic bags. So a plastics recycling facility – which is a business, not a processing plant run by benevolent earth-spirits – therefore must collect twenty million bags – 20 bales worth of plastic – before they can profit from collecting the bags. To recycle bags consumers may bring them to supermarkets, most of whom participate in film recycling programs.

When plastic is recycled, when you separate your waste and put it into a curbside bin marked  “recyclables only,” it does not simply reincarnate as another plastic bottle. It is first brought to a be sorted, either mechanically or by hand at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). There, the mix is sorted for materials that are relatively clean, and the correct types of plastic that the MRFs want to sell.  Sorted recyclables are then baled and shipped to the plant that will process the plastic, metal, and paper into materials that can be used for manufacturing.

To check out which types of plastic were making it to this last stage, I contacted each of the companies in New Orleans that handle residential waste: Metro, Richard’s, and Empire, which handles the French Quarter and the Downtown Development District. I called their customer service numbers, and in each case, I reached a kind customer service representative. But I’d have to speak with their supervisor, and unfortunately, no one who could help me was in. Twice, I was asked to call back, a couple of times I left a message.

As soon as I would mention that I wanted to know where the recycling went (for this was all I was trying to verify), the speaker on the other end would audibly stiffen, and direct me to someone above them.

One of the companies did call me back, notably after only one prior attempt to contact them. Jennifer Garin, an Operations Manager with Cleanforce (who contracts with Empire Services), was willing to tell me where their recyclables went. She also informed me that when people see the contents of recycling bins thrown in with the garbage, it is likely because an earlier truck has flagged the materials as “commingled” with items that would contaminate the mix, such as food.

“We get calls about it all the time, we won’t put the commingled waste in the truck, so it goes in the garbage truck.” She says often the recycling pickup teams leave an “oops!” door tag with the property inhabitant to explain what happened and how to prevent it in the future. The more contamination enters the recycling stream, the costlier the system becomes as more product is wasted, and the trucks collect fewer materials per trip that can be sold. Garin told me that Empire’s recyclables go to a facility known as Commercial Waste (CW) in Jefferson.

When I called CW and asked about plastics, I was not directed to anyone, because the representative I spoke to informed me that CW does not process plastics. The plastics are sent on to another processing facility in Shreveport.

Back at the drawing board, I contacted Sarah LaRock, the founder and former president of the Louisiana Recycling Coalition. The Recycling Coalition performs advocacy, support, and networking for recycling and waste reduction. She agreed to go on record to talk about challenges in the recycling industry in New Orleans.

“[As of at least six months ago] they were only selling [types] 1 and 2 into new markets. The rest of them aren’t valuable enough to sell.”

I asked her if, when she began this work, she knew that many types of plastic were thrown away after being dutifully sorted.

“Of course not,” she replied. However, she now realizes that it’s commonplace.

“Especially now, it’s a national problem. Have you looked into the China story?”

Ah, the China story. Until recently, much of the US’ recyclable plastic was sold to China for manufacturing purposes. Then in January, China declared it would no longer take the plastic – it was too contaminated, and besides, the domestic market already produces plastic that can be recycled. Unfortunately for us, China historically has recycled about 45 percent of the world’s plastic. Across the country, municipal recycling facilities are in crisis over this embargo, and some are simply sending their “recyclables” to the dump.

“There was a time… in October 2015, the MRFs in Louisiana were processing types 3-5. When the cost of crude oil is really high, recyclables are more valuable. Because the cost of the virgin material is so high, it’s cheaper to use recycled material.”

In times like 2015, when oil costs were high, there were markets to sell the less common types of plastic. As the cost of oil dropped, these markets disappeared.

“In places like California, there are laws that say ‘it doesn’t matter what the economy does, you’re gonna move the recycling to the proper facility, and get them back into the market’. Louisiana doesn’t have any laws like that. If the market isn’t favorable for selling, then they’re not gonna separate that material and sell it at a loss.

“The city governments have no idea. They put requirements in the contracts the with the haulers who can’t control what happens at the MRFs, which are not obliged to the contracts with the cities… the lack of communication between the municipalities and the MRFs is a source of a lot of the confusion,” says LaRock.

An anonymous source who works in recycling in the greater New Orleans area told me that types 1 and 2 plastic do comprise an overwhelming majority of the recycled plastic in the city – the plastic that ends up in the curbside bins. Type 1 and 2 plastic are mainly beverage bottles, milk jugs, and bottles for detergent. The other types are generally not processed because storing the sorted plastic before the facilities have enough bales to ship is inefficient and expensive. Especially in the case where plastic is stored outside when the sun and rain will inevitably degrade the plastic. And here in New Orleans, we have no shortage of either.

Jay Shows, the plant manager of Sumrall recycling in Shreveport, told me that Sumrall also recycles mainly types one and two plastics. When I spoke to the plant manager at Republic, the MRF closest to New Orleans (in Metairie) he also confirmed that they process  type 1 and 2 plastic, and generally do not process the other types.

At Republic, plastic is sorted by hand for the desired types by “pickers.” Even the desired types of plastic may be passed over if the shape or product is not immediately recognized by the workers, who must sort through high volumes of plastic without making mistakes and contaminating the bales.

Pratt, the Shreveport facility that processes the plastic that is brought to CW in Jefferson, does not process plastics 3-7, according to LaRock (who says this was true until at least 6 months ago when she moved from Louisiana) and the anonymous source. Shreveport’s website, which instructs residents to recycle plastics that are generally types 1 and 2 (beverage bottles, milk jugs, and detergent bottles) seem to substantiate this claim. Pratt’s VP never did respond to our requests for a brief interview, or even answer the two questions emailed to him, one of which was just, “what kinds of plastics are recycled at your facility?”

At every turn, it seemed, no one currently working for New Orleans government, or the waste collection companies holding the contracts, or even the municipal governments around New Orleans wanted to go on the record on this issue. Over and over, I was directed to peoples’ supervisors seemingly because answering truthfully about plastic recycling was enough to jeopardize someone’s livelihood.

In a parody of my friends’ claims that the city never recycles, some recycling is indeed futile. For instance, the city plans on expanding public recycling receptacles, which will certainly involve several in the French Quarter. But food containers are types 5-7. And to-go cups, an item this reporter previously highlighted as prime candidates for public recycling, are type 6.

This is not to say that New Orleanians should throw up their hands and decide it is useless to try to divert their waste from the landfill. All of our plastic waste goes somewhere, and every piece that goes to a landfill will outlive us. This will be our legacy. And as people that live next to the largest ocean dead zone in the world, we should recognize our responsibility to change our behavior, and lobby for products that are not simply designed to be thrown away.

We should also be aware of what has the best chance of being recycled so that we can recycle intelligently.

“We need to change individually and collectively,” says Jane Patton, who is currently working with several international nonprofits on the issue of plastic pollution.

“We should be doing everything individually to reduce our waste, including recycling single-use items. And we should be pushing back and asking why corporations are allowed to make all this waste and packaging.”

It seems a worthwhile question.

Louisiana Recycling Coalition is looking for volunteers! To get involved, click here!

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