June 12, 2024

Allie “Nokko” Johnson is a member of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, and they love to teach young tribe members about recycling. Johnson helps them make Christmas decorations from things that are going to be thrown away, or melts down small crayons to make bigger ones.

“In its own way, recycling is a form of decolonization for tribal members,” Johnson said. “We must decolonize our present to make a better future for tomorrow.”

The Coushatta Reservation, in southern Louisiana, is small, made up of about 300 tribal members, and rural—the nearest Walmart is 40 minutes away. Recycling was not popular in the area, but as the risks of climate change increased, so did the tribe’s interest. In 2014, the tribe took action and began collecting materials from tribal offices and departments, creating recycling contests for the community and teaching children about recycling.

Recently, federal grant money has been made available to tribes to help start and grow recycling programs. last fall, the Coushatta received $565,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency for his small operation. The funds helped restore a storage shed, build a facility for the community to use, and continue educational outreach. But that’s not enough to serve the area’s 3,000 residents of indigenous and non-indigenous recycling for the long term.

Typically, small tribes do not have the resources to run recycling programs because the operations must be financially successful. Federal funding can offset heavy equipment costs and some labor, but educating people on how to recycle, along with long distances from processing facilities, makes operation difficult.

But that didn’t deter the Coushatta tribe.

A group of teenagers stand near a fence.  They cheer and jump.
Courtesy of Skylar Bourque

In 2021, the European Union banned single-use plastics such as straws, bottles, cutlery and shopping bags. Germany regained 69 percent of its municipal waste thanks to laws that enforce recycling habits. South Korea enforces strict fees for violations of the country’s recycling protocols and even offers rewards for reporting violators, leading to a 60 percent recycling and composting rate.

But those numbers don’t really illuminate the scale of the world’s recycling output. About 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s and researchers estimate that 91 percent of it is not recycled. In the United States the Department of Energy finds that only 5 percent is recycled, while aluminum, which is used in packaging, a recycling rate of about 35 percent. The recycling rate for paper products, including books, mail, containers and packaging, is approximately 68 percent.

There are no statewide recycling laws in the U.S., leaving the task up to states, and only a handful of states take it seriously: Ten have “bottle accounts,” which allow individuals to redeem empty containers for cash, while Maine, California , Colorado , and Oregon have passed laws holding corporations and manufacturers accountable for wasteful packaging by requiring them to help pay for recycling efforts. In the 1960s, the U.S. recycling rate across all materials—including plastic, paper, and glass— was only 7 percent. Now it is 32 percent. The EPA aims to increase that number to 50 percent nationwide by 2030, but aside from one law targeting rural recycling moving through Congress, there are no overarching national recycling requirements to make that happen.

In 2021, Louisiana had a recycling rate of 2.9 percent, except for cities like New Orleans, where containers are available for free for residents to use to recycle everything from glass bottles to electronics to Mardi Gras beads. In rural areas, access to recycling facilities is rare if any, leaving it up to local communities or tribal governments to provide them. There is little reliable data on how many tribes operate recycling programs.

“Tribal members see the state of the world right now, and they want to make a change,” said Skylar Bourque, who works on the tribe’s recycling program. “Ultimately, as a tribe, it’s up to us to give them the tools to do that.”

But the number one problem small programs face is still funding. Cody Marshall, chief systems optimization officer for The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit organization, said many rural communities and tribal nations across the country would love to recycle more if they had the funds to do so, but running a recycling program is more expensive than using the landfill that may be next door.

“Many landfills are in rural areas and many of the processing sites that manage recyclables are in urban areas, and the management costs alone can sometimes be what makes a recycling program unfeasible,” he said.

The Recycling Partnership also provides grants for tribes and other communities to help with the cost of recycling. The EPA received and selected 91 applications 59 tribal recovery programs at various stages of development for this year, including one run by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, which began its recycling program in 2010. Today, it collects nearly 50 metric tons of material per year – material that would otherwise have ended up in a landfill.

“Once you start small, you can get people on board with you,” said James Williams, director of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Environmental Services. He is optimistic about the future of recycling in tribal communities. “Now I see blue bins all over the country,” he said, referring to the recycling bins used by tribal citizens.

Williams’ department has cleaned up a dozen open dumps in the past two years, as well as two lagoons – an issue about tribal lands in Oklahoma and beyond. Illegal dumping can be a symptom of a lack of resources due to waste management being historically underfunded. Those dumping on tribal land also faced insufficient consequences.

“We still have the issue of illegal dumping on rural roads,” he said, adding that his goal is to clean up as much as possible. “If you dump something, it’s going to hit a waterway.”

According to Williams, tribes in Oklahoma work with recycling programs to address issues such as long-distance transportation of materials and how to serve tribal communities in rural areas, as well as funding issues specific to tribes, such as putting together grant applications and finding tribal governments. to make recycling a priority. The Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma as well partners with Durant, a nearby town. Durant couldn’t afford a recycling program of their own, therefore, they directed recycling needs to the tribe.

This year’s EPA grant to the Muscogee program is purchasing a $225,000 semi truck, an $80,000 carton truck, and a $200,000 document shredder truck. Muscogee was also able to purchase a $70,000 horizontal compactor, which helps compact material to help store it, and two $5,000 trailers for hauling. Williams’ recycling program work in conjunction with the Muscogee Solid Waste Program, so they share some of their resources.

Returns on recycled materials are not high. In California, for example, one ton of plastic can fetch $167, while aluminum can go for $1,230. Corrugated cardboard can also be very different from $20 to $210 per ton. Prices for all recycled materials fluctuate frequently, and unless you deal in large quantities, the business can be difficult. Those who cannot sell their material may have to sit on it until they can find a buyer, or dispose of it.

Last year, Muscogee Creek made about $100,000 selling the materials it collected, but the program cost $250,000 to run. The difference is made up by profits from the Muscogee Creek Nation’s casino, which helps keep the recycling program free for the 101,252 tribal members who live on the reservation. The profits also help non-natives who want to recycle.

The Coushatta Tribe serves 3,000 people, Native and non-Native, and was rejected by 12 different recycling brokers – individuals who act as intermediaries between operations and buyers – because of the distance materials would have to travel.

Allie Johnson said she couldn’t find a broker who was close enough, or who was willing to travel to the Coushatta tribe to pick up their recycling. “We either pass the cost,” she said, “or commute and have to pay extra for gas.” It’s exhausting.”

Currently, the only place near them that buys recyclables is St. Landry Parish Recycling Center, which pays only $0.01 per pound of cardboard. A truck bed full of aluminum cans delivers just $20 from the nearest center, 90 minutes away. That’s how much the tribe expects to make for now.

Still, the Coushatta tribe of Louisiana isn’t giving up.

With this new injection of federal money, they will finally be able to store more materials, and hopefully make money back on their communities’ recyclables. Much like the Muscogee Creek Nation, they see the recycling program as a convenience, but they still hope to turn it into a thriving business.

Meanwhile, the Coushatta continue their educational programming, teaching children the value of taking care of the earth, even when it’s hard.

“It’s about maintaining the land,” Johnson said.

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