Trash Gets a Second Chance

A recap of our Sunset Park Materials Recovery Facility tour

Do the staples that hold together magazines get recycled, too? Can the metal, plastic, and paper in drink boxes (aseptic packages) be pried apart? And do plastic bags really get recycled? These are hard questions to answer when you’re staring at a recycling bin at home. The answers become clearer when you visit the actually-pretty-attractive Sunset Park Materials Recovery Facility, in Brooklyn.

An Urban Green tour viewed this mixture of brawny industrialism (giant front loaders pushing piles of compacted trash around concrete holding bays) and space-age technology (laser eyes that sense plastic types and command air jets to squirt individual objects on a fast-moving conveyor belt into bins). The sorting machinery is almost impossible to track in one’s head, as it’s truly in three dimensions. Conveyors, screw augers, magnetic separators, hand sorting stations, and a bag-ripper-opener known as “The Liberator” are oriented in every direction, sending reclaimable materials over, under, and through mostly-automated machinery in a hangar-sized space.

Sims Recycling Facility Tour

The smell? A little rotten and sickly sweet, but not too strong. “You do get used to it after awhile,” said tour guide Eadaoin Quinn. Then again, this is a person who commented that “eddy currents are cool, but optical sorters are even cooler,” so she may be biased. Personally, I geeked out on the multimodal capabilities of the plant, with materials coming and going by barge, boat, truck, and train (the latter an NYCEDC investment in rail in Sunset Park).

Seeing the plant in person was incontrovertible evidence against John Tierney’s intellectually dishonest piece bashing recycling in the New York Times. Tierney’s claims recycling puts “extra trucks on the road.” But all the solid waste generated in NYC has to go somewhere, and for landfill-bound waste, that’s mostly trucks. Recycling gives it a fighting chance to get off the crowded roads. (Check out Grist’s debunking of the Tierney piece and Treehugger’s historical take on Tierney’s “idiocracy”.)

The facility is owned by the City of New York, but operated by Sims Municipal Recycling under a 20-year contract, with a 20-year optional extension. This seems to have created a long-term commitment to the project from its corporate operator, who is investing in the overall sustainability of the site as well as in expensive sorting machinery that can reclaim more materials than many other facilities. And that foresightedness extended to the building of the plant itself, famously raised above the 100-year flood level just before Superstorm Sandy.

Sims Recycling Facility Tour

The educational displays in the facility’s classroom area were the best I’ve ever seen, including those in well-known interactive museums. You can turn a crank to use magnets to sort aluminum and steel cans, and operate an air jet to send water bottles to a holding bin. In the end, seeing the plant itself was enough to answer the questions at the start of this post. Plastic bags do get recycled, though as Planet Money discovered, dirty plastic film doesn’t have much value. Yes, aseptic packages are recycled because the paper inside them is of high quality and is valuable. And as for those pesky little staples? Quinn advised avid recyclers to focus on the greater good in a culture where recycling rates are stuck in the low double digits: to have a greater impact, “Don’t worry about a staple, but get your neighbor to start recycling instead.”