The city of New Orleans had given up on glass recycling. Enterprising students from Tulane University decided to step up to the challenge.
Recycling is a broken system to begin with. But when you are dealing with a slowly sinking city in an environmentally sensitive region just miles away from "Cancer Alley" with an infrastructure still recovering from the man-made disaster that was Hurricane Katrina...well, it's even more complicated.
After the Category 5 hurricane turned the city upside down, recycling was, unfortunately, the last thing on anyone's minds. The storm had left so much damage and destruction in its path that just merely getting trash out of the city was a huge endeavor. From mildewed furniture to festering refrigerators, the city and its neighboring parishes struggled to clean up the city for years.It took six full years for recycling to return. By most accounts, it seemed like a success. In 2014, three years after the reinstatement of recycling, the amount of waste collected for reuse was about 75 times higher than in 2011. But this success was short-lived.
Cut to 2016: New Orleans then-mayor Mitch Landrieu ended curbside glass recycling "due to low participation." That left the city and its nearly 400,000 residents with just one drop-off location. Run by the Department of Sanitation, the program has a 50-pound per-person limit and is only open to the public once a month.
One needs only to walk through the historic French Quarter in the early morning and hear the the cacophony of boozy bottles clanking against each other during garbage pickup to get a feel for how much glass this city goes through. According to 2015 numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Louisiana ranks 7th for intensity of binge drinking among adults. (Alaska came in first place.)
All that to say, with a city below sea level and system failure of landfills nationwide, Nola needed to get its act together when it came to glass recycling.
Enter three enterprising Tulane University students: Max Landy, Franziska Trautmann, and Max Steitz — the founders of Plant the Peace, a new environmental nonprofit organization. "This situation is not unique to New Orleans," Steitz explains. "When we can't count on our local government to implement change and necessary policies and programs, an entire city came together by sharing the page, donating, dropping off their glass...it's overwhelming and humbling at the same time."
Plant the Peace began with a crowdfunding campaign through GoFundMe. In a little over two weeks, the group was able to hit their target and beyond. "Initially, we had a lower goal," says Trautmann. "But after getting so much support from the community, the entire city, the entire state, needed this kind of program so much, we realized we needed to scale up immediately."
After going above and beyond their goal, the team set out to purchase a glass pulverizing machine, along with a large trailer that they use to haul around their dropoff and pickup barrels in town. "We collect the glass once a week and swap the full barrel for a clean barrel," Steitz explains. They lug the barrels back to their operation and begin the four-step process of manually sorting out the glass, pulverizing it, sifting the sand-like product, and, finally, filling up their branded sandbags with about 30-40 pounds of sparkling clean sand.
"We're actually in a global sand shortage," explains Steitz. "There's so many applications with this product, from protecting the coast to fortifying our levees to protecting our homes."
Trautmann says they plan on selling the sandbags at under-market prices, and are currently looking for buyers. They're hoping both mom-and-pop hardware stores and even gigantic federal programs like FEMA will be potentially interested in their product.
Though their operation is small so far, the manual labor pays off. "This industry average for a normal recycling facility throws away about 90% of what they receive," states Steitz. "We're averaging at about 2-5%. We view throwing away as a last resort."
The three students are graduating soon, but all plan to stay in the city after college. Right now, their team consists of just them and a hard-working crew of Tulane interns and volunteers. "It's been really heartwarming to see people in Nola coming out and wanting to donate their time and get involved," Steitz says. "It shows the story of a city coming together."
They're currently working on raising money for a bigger model of the glass pulverizing machine, one that is essentially a conveyer belt and will be able to handle larger quantities of glass.
For those worried about the carbon emissions of a large trailer being driven around town to pick up the glass donations, Steitz and Trautmann have that top of mind, too. "Another big part of what our organization does is calculating carbon footprints and emissions and working to offset that," Steitz explains. "We are always questioning, 'What is our carbon footprint as an operation?'"
Both students also lamented the lack of transparency many major cities have when it comes to knowing where your recyclables go once it's picked up. When looking at the current recycling model in New Orleans, Steitz says they discovered that many people had been hoarding their glass bottles for weeks before driving it to the drop-off site.
From there, the glass is shipped to an unknown location, but Trautmann says one government worker told her it went to Mississippi. "What happens after that?" she says. "We don't know what's happening to it, and often the carbon footprint of trying to get rid of it ended up being more than just throwing it away."
The students insist that individual actions do matter, even when it feels like our lives have been co-opted by the Convenience Industrial Complex. "It's kind of cheesy and cliché, but you really can do it," Steitz says. "At the end of the day, this is our city, this is our country, this is our planet. We can't wait any longer."
And never forget the power of a community coming together. "My advice would be to just throw a line out to the community. We're not doing this alone by any means," adds Trautmann. "We've had thousands of people sharing, donating, reaching out, offering support or advice. That's how we're gonna get it done — using community support."