Residents of New Orleans are advocating for an improved recycling system, but instead, the city is cutting back. As of May 17th, Republic Services, the material recovery facility (MRF) in New Orleans, will stop accepting curbside recycling.
Previously, Republic Services had been the primary collector of paper, metal, and plastic materials within the city. This recycling plant was always been limited in what it could accept. The facility has never taken in glass or plastics type 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7, as these material require much more advanced technology. However, the limitation was minor, given that these types of plastic only make up a small amount of waste when compared to paper, metal, and plastic types 1 and 2. Now, as Republic Services will bring in fewer recyclables, the city will have to learn how to manage a flood of excess materials.
New Orleans is not the only city that is losing recycling services; MRFs throughout the country have been struggling to maintain their own recycling systems
since 2018, when China announced it would no longer accept recycling from other countries.
Rachel Skowyra, recycling coordinator for waste connections, explained that our country's recycling is low quality. "The recycling we were giving them was really dirty. As China's economy grows, they don't need our recycling to make more stuff. They have their own recycling to make more stuff," she said.
Shortly after China's ban, other countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia followed suit. Within the past year, as more materials built up domestically, it became cheaper to throw recyclables into landfills. "They are not making money at the recycling facility. Because of that, the cost of recycling is going up," said Skowyra.
It is clear that New Orleans needs an immediate new solution, but it is hard to decide whose responsibility it is to tackle the problem.
"In New Orleans, there are a lot of people who push for recycling, but it's not really up to the city of New Orleans. [The city] would either have to build their own MRF, which is millions of dollars, or they would have to put a lot of political pressure into the existing MRFs to make them more efficient," said Skowyra.
It may seem like the fate of recycling is out of locals' hands, but maintaining proper recycling habits is now more important than ever before.
Although many people like the idea of recycling, few commit to doing it. Skowyra calls these people "wishful recyclers." Such residents have good intentions, but leave their recycling bins a mess, which disrupts the recycling process. As a result, such hopeful recyclers actually end up doing more harm by contaminating materials that would otherwise be recyclable.
Often times, food that is left in containers contaminates recycling bins. It is important to wash out these materials carefully to ensure that plastic, paper, and metal are clean enough to be reused. Additionally, recyclers must educate themselves about what can be recycled and what cannot be. Trying to recycle materials that MRFs cannot reuse only causes more clutter.
Even with impeccable recycle habits and systems, it is becoming clear that recycling alone is not enough to manage the overhaul of materials in the country. Therefore, it is important to think one step further: reducing waste altogether.
"The first thing we need to consider is creating less waste and reusing what we have," Skowyra said. When there are fewer materials to be dealt with, it will become easier to tackle this problem..