In the last two weeks, Mayor Mitch Landrieu hosted his annual budget meetings in each City Council district. I attended the meeting for District A, and followed along with several other meetings on Twitter. While bicycle infrastructure appeared to be a big theme at several meetings, there wasn’t too much said about litter and trash on city streets. At the reportedly rowdy District D meeting, Landrieu was asked about litter, and he reportedly asked “can we just not throw stuff on the ground?”
If it were only that simple.
Wherever there are people, there is going to be trash. Government is going to have to maintain services adequate to deal with that trash. Now, it may feel righteous to blame people for throwing things on the ground. They are absolutely responsible for the litter problem. But if your plan is to wait for them to develop the sense of personal accountability that makes them go back outside, pick up their garbage, and put it where it goes, you may be waiting for a long, long time.
Luckily, the City of New Orleans has been doing a lot to improve the city services that deal with trash and litter. There’s still plenty to do, but Landrieu’s administration and City Council have a pretty good track record on this, and I’m surprised he didn’t run down the list and talk up his accomplishments. That’s usually something we can count on him to do.
Let’s start with the administration itself. The Department of Sanitation at City Hall is directed by Cynthia Sylvain-Lear, and she has done a tremendous job with her limited resources. Sanitation has “rangers” who investigate 311 notifications of illegal dumping; the department has been very responsive to community questions; and the mitigation of litter following second line parades and big events has been a huge boost to supporting the true culture of New Orleans. The Neighborhood Engagement Office is working with community groups and neighborhood organizations to help them organize and promote their own clean-ups of trash, empty lots, and catch basins. These events started with the City Spring Clean Ups earlier this year, and are planned to continue quarterly. Hell, I’ve even started to see Parks and Parkways picking up litter before landscaping some of the neutral grounds. They used to just mow the trash into smaller pieces that were harder to see, so this is a big improvement.
Within the City Council, Susan Guidry and Latoya Cantrell are proposing an ordinance to add a desperately needed, point-of-sale cost to one-use plastic bags. Right now, these insidious plastic bags are a garbage plague on the public spaces of our city, and are made an even bigger problem with the assumption that they are “free.” Those costs are only passed on to the consumer in their taxes and clean-up bill or when they clog your catch basin, flood your street, and contribute to your potholes and high car insurance premium. Hopefully passage of the plastic bag ordinance will discourage their use, and keep 100 million plastic bags off our streets and out of the landfill every year.
Despite these initiatives, garbage and litter will still be a problem in New Orleans, and changing that will take continued effort over the long term. The biggest issues as I see them involve litter, illegal dumping, and access to recycling. These are all issues that can be addressed with city policy to help promote individual and volunteer efforts. If I had spoken at the budget meeting, this is what I would have asked the Mayor and City to work on in the future:
- We have to have more public trash cans and recycle bins. If you look at some of the parts of our city with the worst litter problems, there are hardly any receptacles around. People will put their trash in trash cans and their recycling in recycling bins if some can be found nearby.
- Those public receptacles have to be emptied on the regular. If a public trash can or recycle bin is full, people can’t put their trash in it because there’s no room.
- RTA stops need their trash cans emptied on a more frequent schedule. We also need trash cans and recycling bins at many more RTA stops. (Please start with Carrollton & Ulloa.)
- The city trash contracts have to allow the installation and pickup of new trash cans and recycling bins. Right now, everything I’ve heard indicates that buying new receptacles would be easy, but getting the trash and recycling picked up from them would be cost prohibitive.
- New Orleans should have more than one trash, recycling, and glass drop-off point. Almost every city I’ve lived in has giant, roll-away dumpsters somewhere on city property where residents can easily take their yard trash or big items or recycling. New Orleans has one station, over on Elysian Fields, that only receives trash and recycling on a specific schedule. This inability to get big items or recycling removed encourages residents to just leave garbage on the side of the road in front of their homes, or stacked against those Habitat for Humanity bins we see stationed about on empty lots. With all the city property under bridges, in former industrial zones, and on large parking lots, New Orleans could set up stations all around town that let residents get rid of large or cumbersome items. We know this can work – mattresses don’t walk to the donation bins by themselves, after all.
Each of those ideas represent something New Orleans could do in the next year’s budget, and build on our existing successes in cleaning up our public spaces. Litter and trash is a problem of scale; given enough time, even a few bad actors can make a big mess if nobody steps in to clean it up. But give people easier ways to get rid of their garbage and recycling, and a lot more people will put their trash where it goes instead of simply throwing stuff on the ground.
Patrick Armstrong lives in Mid-City and has been a NOLA TrashMOB volunteer for 3 years. His views are his own and do not reflect official positions of any organizations or groups he is a part of. He posts inane musings on Twitter @panarmstrong.