The nation’s recycling crisis has hit the New Orleans area.
Blaming a major policy change by the Chinese government, the Arizona-based operator of the Metairie facility that sorts items collected curbside in parts of New Orleans and most of Jefferson Parish has informed garbage contractors that they can no longer take residential recycling collections to the Metairie location starting Friday.
The announcement has left local governments scrambling to find alternatives and to sort out what impact the change will have on the cost — and perhaps the fate — of a service that has become increasingly difficult to provide.
In a letter to the local companies Metro Disposal and Waste Connections, Republic Services Inc. said it will continue accepting commercial recycling in Metairie but not residential collections. It said it will try to accommodate clients at its facility in Baton Rouge.
The decision comes in response to China's "National Sword" initiative, which in March banned 24 types of scrap and implemented contamination standards of 0.5 percent. Contamination refers to the amount of nonrecyclable material that ends up in curbside bins.
Previously, China has taken in about 40 percent of America’s recycling, including 55 percent of its scrap paper, and has tolerated high levels of nonrecyclable materials, such as plastic bags, food waste, used paper plates or towels, Styrofoam containers or packing peanuts.
“There simply are no longer markets in this region for the excessively contaminated recyclables brought to our facility by the city’s two main haulers,” Republic said in a written statement.
Republic said local contamination levels are in line with the national average of about 30 percent.
No local curbside recycling programs accept glass, and Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. John and St. Charles parishes don't have programs.
LaTonya Norton, a spokeswoman for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, said the city is looking into its options and could have an announcement as soon as Monday.
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Recyclables collected north of Interstate 10 by Metro go to the Republic Services facility, while those from south of the interstate go to Commercial Waste Recycling’s Elmwood facility. Recycling in that area is handled by Richard's Disposal Inc. and Ramelli Waste LLC.
Ramelli has the contract in Kenner, which will be unaffected by Republic’s decision.
Unincorporated Jefferson Parish, Gretna and Westwego are serviced by Waste Connections and will have to find an alternative place to take their recyclables, which could be Commercial Waste’s Elmwood facility or Republic’s Baton Rouge location.
Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni’s office issued a statement saying it is working with Waste Connections to find a solution by the end of the month, but, like other local governments, “is being forced to make the hard choice about whether to raise user fees, reduce the collection of plastics with no viable market value, or temporarily suspend its curbside recycling effort.”
Gretna and Westwego temporarily suspended their programs in recent days. Westwego is looking at other options, while Gretna’s city attorney is looking into whether its contract can be changed that abruptly.
“I’m not excited about moving backward instead of forward,” said Mayor Belinda Constant, who brought recycling to Gretna in 2014. There is a clause to adjust for inflation, but other than that, “my contract is good for five years,” she said.
On the north shore, recycling is offered in Mandeville, Covington and Slidell through Coastal Environmental Services.
Coastal executive Gus Bordelon told the Mandeville City Council on Thursday that Republic’s decision has spiked his costs, from $127 per ton to $167 per ton. He is seeking a 42 cents per-household increase, which would bring the monthly recycling fee to $4.38.
In the meantime, Coastal is conducting a two-week trial using a recycling facility near Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Ramelli owner Bob Ramelli said rising costs and fewer sorting options stemming from China’s decision and other factors are ongoing. He said he wouldn’t be surprised to find his company’s process disrupted amid the turmoil.
Ramelli said he’s paying about $50 a ton to Commercial Waste Recycling to take his firm's recyclables. If he had to take them to Baton Rouge it would cost about $120, plus up to $15 a ton for transportation costs.
He said that eight years ago, he was being paid between $5 and $10 a ton for recyclable materials. Two years later, he started having to pay someone to take it.
Since then, he said, “my prices have gone up considerably.”
Susan Collins, president of the nonprofit Container Recycling Institute in California, said that China’s policy reversal is significant because it was such a large market for U.S. recyclables, but it is overshadowing a number of other forces hurting domestic markets for some plastics and aluminum.
But perhaps more important, she said, it is providing cover for a flawed system. She said single-stream recycling — throwing everything into a single recycling bin and having it hauled away by your trash contractor — has thrived because it's simple for consumers, cost-effective for garbage contractors and enabled by a Chinese government willing to take anything off our hands.
But single-stream recycling dirties paper and cardboard, and can encourage contamination by reducing consumers’ engagement with recycling to the split-second they decide which of two containers to throw an unwanted item into.
Without a focus on public education, “aspirational recycling” — throwing something in the bin because you want to recycle, not because you know it actually should go there — has become rampant.
Westwego Mayor Joe Peoples said the city workers who collect the curbside recycling have been trained to remove improperly recycled items, and they see a lot of them.
“Some people, if you look in their recycling bin, you would think it was their garbage can,” he said.
Collins said single-stream recycling meant increased public participation, but it came at the expense of quality and occurred largely because it can be automated, reducing labor costs.
Participation levels were not available Friday from Jefferson and Orleans, but have in the past been quite low. There are some exceptions. Mayor Mike Cooper said almost half of Covington residents recycle. But in Westwego, only 5 percent — 180 out of 3,500 households — do so.
Mayor Peoples, however, feels it is an important service to provide for those who want it.
Collins said it will take time for U.S. companies to respond to the void left by China's actions, but in the meantime, she said residents who want to recycle should work to make sure the program is not dropped entirely.
Dual-stream or multi-stream recycling — separate bins for different materials — as it is handled in Europe is the model, Collins said, and cities will need to bolster education campaigns to cut down on contamination. Ample and accessible drop-off sites should be available for those who want to recycle properly.
“The recycling community is just at the beginning stages of realizing that we need to rethink the whole thing,” Collins said. “We’ve been doing a pretty poor job up until now, and we are not on par with other industrialized nations.”
Also, she said, people can look for ways to reduce consumption, waste and unnecessary packaging on the front end.
“There are environmental consequences of our use of these everyday items, and we have to stop being blind to that,” Collins said. “We throw everything in the bin and think it goes away, but there is no ‘away.’ ”
Staff writer Sara Pagones contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This story was changed on May 13, 2019 to reflect that China's National Sword policy had already been in place before contamination standards were enacted in March.