Jazzing Things Up

ALONG WITH GREAT FOOD, cool jazz and a rich architectural history, New Orleans, site of this year's WasteExpo, has acquired the unsavory reputation of being unclean. Indeed, with an average of more than a half a million visitors per day and a carefree culture that celebrates all things to the excess, the Big Easy generates a lot of garbage. In the past, this malaise has extended to the city's residential solid waste collection program, where bribery and missed pickups have been the norm. However, bolstered in part by a new, no-nonsense mayor, New Orleans is cleaning up its image.

The city of New Orleans Department of Sanitation (DOS), which oversees solid waste and recycling collection, now is taking a more proactive approach toward litter prevention, solid waste handling and its recycling. Yet even with the new attitude, city officials still face challenges that, like so many of its famous homegrown attributes, are unique to the Crescent City.

Keeping House

The city of Orleans, or Orleans Parish, has a population of 476,625 full-time residents, approximately 168,000 of which receive curbside solid waste and recycling collection. All of the services that DOS oversees, including solid waste and recycling collection, street sweeping, landfill disposal, and citizen drop off and municipal dumpsters, are contracted to private companies.

Waste Management Inc., Houston, currently handles residential solid waste collection and hauling for the city. Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) owned by Allied Waste Industries, Scottsdale, Ariz., operates the residential curbside recycling program.

Waste Management has held the city's solid waste collection contract since the mid-1980s, picking up approximately 900 tons of solid waste per day from city residents, according to Lynn Wiltz, DOS director. Materials are hauled to the River Birch Landfill, Waggaman, La., which charges a tipping fee of $28.56 per ton.

Because of the city's humid climate, waste collection occurs twice a week. However, in the French Quarter and Central Business District, which are the city's most heavily populated areas, collection occurs nightly.

“We're the seafood capital,” says Rodney Littleton, deputy director of the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs. “One of the issues we face is we can't have that stuff sitting around too long.”

Another inherent challenge to solid waste collection in New Orleans is the lack of automated collection that essentially has been dictated by the city layout. “It's been guesstimated that we could never do automated collection because the streets are too narrow in the French Quarter, in addition to the parking issues. But it's something we need to look into,” Wiltz says. When Waste Management's $17-million contract expires in May 2004, the DOS will, for the first time, require contract bids to include projected costs for automation, she says.

Presently, Waste Management uses a fleet of approximately 45 Goliath rear-end loaders with hoppers for solid waste collection. Despite — or perhaps because of — this labor-intensive collection, solicitation of tips by garbage collectors has become commonplace, according to a recent survey by Urban Strategies LLC, a New Orleans-based environmental education and consulting firm.

These program challenges and others have made Wiltz question whether privatization is the right choice for the city's solid waste services. “I always ran track the best when I knew that the person next to me could beat me,” Wiltz says. “While I don't think it would be practical or good for the city to go away from privatization altogether, 100 percent privatization is maybe not the way to go. The competition component is so important.”

While the DOS looked into pay-as-you-throw programs several years ago, the city's billing system prevented the viability of switching to such a disposal option. Currently, New Orleans residents are charged $13 a month for solid waste collection and recycling through the city's sewage and water bill. The money goes into the city's general fund, which is used for the department's $36.5 million annual budget. “If we can work out the billing issue, it may be something that we revisit again in the future,” Wiltz says.

Rethinking Recycling

Meantime, less than two years after city council members discussed scrapping curbside collection of recyclables in New Orleans, the program has emerged as a shining star for the DOS. As of May 2001, a new $3.5-million contract was re-signed to BFI that, most notably, requires the company to incorporate community outreach. The result has nearly doubled the amount of recyclables collected from residents, according to Pat Bryant, president of Urban Strategies, which manages the community outreach component of BFI's contract.

Urban Strategies helps to facilitate monthly meetings with community leaders, elected officials and the general public to discuss recycling and litter prevention. Dubbed the Crescent City Cleanup Committees, the meetings involve the community in recycling and solid waste issues, Bryant says. “They're based on the concept of having an open dialogue,” Wiltz adds. “It's one of the things we're proudest of.”

Other BFI contract requirements include a recycling grant fund for recycling-related community projects, office recycling at 11 municipal facilities and increased marketing of the program to the public. In one recent marketing campaign, BFI's recycling collection trucks, which are purple, were outfitted with billboards that read, “Need a bin?” on one side and “Bin missed?” on the other along with the appropriate telephone numbers to call. “BFI had been giving out 200 bins a month, but at the height of this campaign they were giving out 1,100 a month,” Wiltz says.

The city's community outreach programs may not be unique, but they represent an almost radical approach in New Orleans, according to Littleton. “Recycling is not really infused in the mindset here,” he says. “Whereas other cities have been dealing with this since the early '80s, curbside recycling is a fairly new program for us.”

Curbside collection of recyclables in New Orleans was not implemented until 1995. Under the city's former contract with BFI, residents were charged $1 per month for weekly collection of commingled recyclables, without any additional contract stipulations or operator incentives. Under the new contract, which now charges residents $1.70 per month for recyclables collection, BFI must increase program participation to receive additional compensation.

Despite the public outreach campaign, the amount of recyclables collected in the city represents less than 7 percent of total solid waste, Wiltz says. Compost and household hazardous waste are excluded from the program, yet privately operated entities accept drop-offs from residents.

Although the city has not tracked recycling program participation, more than 80 percent of residents surveyed by Urban Strategies said they participated, defying the logic of the latest recycling rate calculation. “More people claim to recycle than actually do,” Wiltz says. “Clearly there's an interest there.”

New Mayor, New Campaign

New Orleans' recycling outreach is part of a comprehensive citywide campaign focusing on neighborhood cleanups and litter prevention. Ushered in at the behest of Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who took office in May 2002, the Clean City Campaign aims to keep New Orleans spick-and-span through targeted events emphasizing personal and corporate responsibility. According to the DOS, this type of campaign, along with a major public relations push, is the first of its kind in the city.

“The new administration wants to promote New Orleans as a clean city,” Littleton says. Nagin, who has a business background, ran on a platform of making the city safe and clean by providing more efficient and technologically advanced services. “Every mayor has a different charge … and Nagin said, ‘I'm going to be the technology mayor. We want to automate things and make it easier for citizens to participate in programs … and littering won't be tolerated.’ “People are very excited to have new blood in the city,” Wiltz says.

The first component of the Clean City Campaign combines the mayor's call for safety and cleanliness by focusing on litter cleanups within a two-block radius — termed a “safe zone” — of public schools. The program will be administered in conjunction with the New Orleans Police Department and aims to enlist religious groups, community and neighborhood organizations and fast food restaurants to work with the DOS in taking personal responsibility for litter prevention by patrolling the zones.

“We'll also be doing a lot of community education in the safe zones, including going into the schools and trying to educate kids to do the right thing,” Wiltz says.

The second component of the campaign focuses on illegal dumping, a major problem for the city, Wiltz admits. Architectural salvage and restoration operations are plentiful and ongoing in New Orleans. This generates a sizable amount of construction and demolition (C&D) debris; approximately 75 percent of the incoming material at the River Birch Landfill is C&D debris, Wiltz says. Further compounding the issue is the fact that the only city-owned transfer station and landfill are both closed.

To combat the problem, the DOS will work with the city Housing Department and the Mayor's Office of Economic Development to combine cleanup efforts with environmental enforcement efforts. The DOS plans to step up its enforcement operation using Environmental Rangers, whose job is to investigate complaints of illegal dumping and littering, and to issue citations and summonses where appropriate.

“Instead of reacting to a complaint, what we're doing differently is being very proactive and saying, ‘Can you assist us?’” Wiltz says. A recent city council ruling that allows vehicles to be confiscated the second time an offender is caught illegally dumping also will help with enforcement, she says. “Mom and pop [salvage] operations are a real problem for us, and they won't be apt to illegally dump if they know their truck could be taken away.”

The DOS also is converting its old sanitary landfill in the northern part of city into a C&D landfill. After being closed for 20 years, the city ran out of funds during phase three of covering the Old Gentilly Landfill, at which point it decided to put out a bid to have the site retrofitted for C&D disposal. Two local hauling companies, AMID Landfill based in Harahan, La., and Metro Disposal from Harvey, La., were jointly awarded the contract by the DOS and eventually will operate the facility for the city.

“It's a good business opportunity for us in that we will make some revenue while addressing our illegal dumping problem,” Wiltz says. Once the landfill opens, the DOS plans to work with local contractors to publicize the new disposal option.

In the meantime, New Orleans is relying on private and nonprofit recycling and resale operations to alleviate part of the C&D problem. For example, the nonprofit Green Project has been taking lumber, household sinks, cabinets and numerous other reusable building materials since 1994. Although the city promotes the organization to the public through its “Recycle New Orleans Directory,” The Green Project relies on private funding and federal grants to operate, says Renee Allie, the project's executive director.

Business almost has been too good for the organization, Allie says, so the organization recently bought a larger facility. “The city is constantly telling people to take their stuff to us, but we can't possibly handle all the city's stuff,” Allie says. The Green Project staff regularly finds materials piled up at its front door that have been dropped off after business hours. “I'm being very liberal about what we take right now,” she says.

When the Party's Over

The third and final component of New Orleans' Clean City Campaign aims to provide recycling collection and anti-litter promotional campaigns at all major events in the city, including Mardi Gras, the Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest), and the French Quarter Festival. The campaign officially will begin at an Earth Day celebration this month that is being billed as “the cleanest New Orleans party ever.”

“New Orleans is a city that gives a great party, and now we want to be known for throwing a clean party as well,” Wiltz says. The mission will not only involve visitor participation, but also will rely on changing local behavior.

“We think that there is a mindset here that it's OK to throw it down,” Wiltz says, adding that increasing the number of vendors at local festivals has subsequently increased waste totals. In the past, the city has even gauged the success of Mardi Gras by the amount of solid waste that was generated.

“The new mayor has said we should not measure the size of the party by the amount of garbage,” Wiltz says. “We're still saying, ‘Come and have a great time,’ but this time we're also saying, ‘Pick up before you leave.’”

Although the recycling and anti-litter campaign was not implemented at this year's Mardi Gras, the DOS plans to segment areas of the festival to more easily phase-in the program beginning next year. The campaign will be implemented at this year's Jazz Fest, held over a two-weekend period at the end of April and the beginning of May. The program also will be extended to other festivals drawing more than 100,000 attendees.

Organized recyclables collection did not occur at this year's Mardi Gras. Nevertheless, volunteer groups were assembled by the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs to cleanup litter on side streets and parade routes. Temporary laborers also “blitzed” neighborhoods close to parade routes and particularly crowded festival areas, Wiltz says. This year, DOS estimated it spent approximately $360,000 on Mardi Gras-related cleanups.

According to Wiltz, Mardi Gras 2002 generated 2,274 tons of waste. Past festivals have drawn crowds of more than 6 million parade watchers over the 12-day event. (Mardi Gras 2003 waste totals were not available by Waste Age's press time.)

In addition to the volunteer cleanup crews, the city initiated a “Clean the Air Over Mardi Gras” campaign by spotlighting alternative-fuel vehicles in several of this year's parades. The clean air campaign is part of the Greater New Orleans Clean Cities Coalition, which is an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Energy's Clean Cities Campaign.

“We're just trying to get some visibility out in the public that there are a cleaner fleet of vehicles,” Littleton says.

The city's comprehensive approach toward solid waste issues appears to be a positive step forward for New Orleans. “We're headed in the right direction — there is direction now. If everybody has the same plan, it's a lot easier for the city to be proactive,” Wiltz says, noting the Clean City Campaign. “We have everything in place now and, in the words of [chef] Emeril [Lagasse], ‘We're going to kick it up a notch.’”

Contributing Editor Kathleen M. White is based in Portland, Ore.

New Orleans As-A-Glance

Operations: Residential garbage collection and construction and demolition (C&D) recycling in Orleans Parish, La.

Services and Service Area: Collection in Orleans Parish encompasses 5 divisions: New Orleans East; Central Division; Western Division; Eastern Division; and the Commercial Area/Downtown Development, which includes the French Quarter.

No. & Types of Trucks: 34 Goliath vehicles with Volvo cabs and Leach bodies.

No. of Employees: Approximately 102 (3-man crews on trucks).

Processing: Houston-based Waste Management Inc. operates the transfer station located approximately 10 miles from downtown. The facility processes approximately 900 tons per day of commercial and residential garbage, which is delivered by about 40 trailers. Equipment includes a backhoe, Caterpillar excavator, track conveyor and scale.

Most Interesting: The city collects regular household garbage to large pieces of furniture. Their “saddest” pickup several years ago was a baby.