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Phoenix Rising

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Recycling takes off, but one local company reminds us that reducing and reusing are even more important

Steve O’Connor knows a little bit about green living. He and his partner David McDonough run the city’s only subscription-based residential curbside recycling company and are strong advocates for sustainability as a structured part of the city’s management of waste.

New Orleans falls far behind other communities that implement standards for recyclable materials like plastic bottles. Think about it: A family of four consumes 16 average-sized bottles of water per day in one year—that’s 5,376 bottles. Fifty such families discard a whopping 268,800 plastic bottles yearly into landfills.

I spoke with O’Connor at the end of a long workday about the efforts of Phoenix Recycling and why he says reprocessing material just isn’t enough.

Do you see recycling as a way to contribute to the city’s rebuilding?

Oh, absolutely. We’ve kept over 750 tons of material out of landfills and gotten it recycled. Our landfills are stressed, and every little bit helps. And because we’re doing what we’re doing, we’re included in the debate about the trash hauling and waste management of the city and that ties into rebuilding efforts.

David has been successful in commercial recycling since 1991. How was the current curbside program approached?

In May [2007] he asked me if I thought there would be any interest in starting a residential service. I put up four fliers, at coffee shops and at the Green Project, and sent out four e-mails to people I thought might be able to spread the word for us. And within six weeks it was a full-time job answering e-mails and phone calls.

Was that your marketing strategy?

In the beginning we were just putting out feelers: Would people pay $15 a month for us to come to their house every other week? And the answer was quickly “yes.” We thought it was worthwhile to do … something that needed to be done.

The material’s collected, then what happens?

We take as much paper as we can locally to SP Recycling—the only place in town since the storm. Everything else, all the plastic, glass and metal containers, goes to the Recycling Foundation of Baton Rouge, the nearest recovery facility. There, they separate everything, bundle it up and ship it off to manufacturers who recycle it into new material.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about recycling?

That material is worth anything. We get roughly $25 a ton. It costs us close to $200 a ton to get it to Baton Rouge. That’s where the cost of the service comes in. We don’t make more money off more materials; we spend more getting it recycled. Our margins are on the efficiency of the energy we spend to pick [material] up versus the energy saved by having it recycled. That’s why we don’t like these drop-off points the city runs because on my farthest route [I drive] about four-tenths of a mile per household to collect material instead of that household driving five miles to get their material collected. We’re the most sustainable and energy efficient in terms of carbon footprint.

If the city resumes curbside services how will that affect you?

[The city] needs a waste management program that tells people this is what you can throw away, this is what you can recycle, this is how much you can throw away, this is what you can’t throw away—which is what communities all over the country are moving toward … whether we’re involved or not … our main thing is advocating for a program. Not just for the city, but the entire region.

Do you and your family employ other ways of green living?

Oh, yeah. I’ve been trying to eliminate plastic. Bottled water is poison. I have a filter on my tap. I have a reusable container. We try not to use any Styrofoam … everything we can do.

How important is recycling?

Recycling is important because it’s the easiest thing to see; you can see what you’ve thrown away and what you’ve recycled. [But] recycling is the bottom end of the chain, reduce, reuse, recycle. Reducing and reusing are much more important. The challenge is convincing our society that we need to reduce what we use in the first place. I hate going into restaurants and liquor places and every time you buy a drink they give you a new plastic cup. And the fight I have with cashiers. Why do I need a bag for that? Now I have a bag I reuse and take to the store.

I do, too. But sometimes they look at you funny.

Yeah, they do. But that’s all right. We’re coming to the point where changing the way we do things is not a lifestyle choice. We’re fast becoming aware that it’s something we have to do. ?