On a large pier jutting into the East River in south Brooklyn, New York City is putting the finishing touches on a massive recycling plant, lined with state-of-the-art technology and built of recycled steel. When it opens this summer, it will be North America’s largest “comingled” plant, which means it can handle everything from metal filing cabinets to plastic yogurt containers. At an estimated cost of $180 million, the plant is the Big Apple’s bet that it can not only improve its recycling rate but leapfrog other U.S. cities to become one of the nation’s recycling leaders.
It would be quite a leap. Compared with other big cities, New York’s recycling rate is paltry—a mere 15 percent, less than half the national average of 34 percent. That puts Gotham way behind Los Angeles, San Diego, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, which claim to divert about 65 to 75 percent of their waste from landfills. Mayor Bloomberg has set a goal of 30 percent by 2017. “New York can definitely get above 30 percent,” says Ron Gonen, deputy commissioner of sanitation, recycling and sustainability for New York City. “We can set an example for the rest of North America.”
In the past decade many cities and towns have installed single-stream facilities, which tend to encourage higher participation rates because people don’t have to sort anything, yet produce lower-quality materials that are sometimes exported or landfilled. “There’s a fine line between making it too simple—and then you’re getting junk,” says Tom Outerbridge, general manager of municipal recycling for Sims Recycling Solutions, a global firm that manages some of New York City’s recycling operations.
New York is still a dual-stream city, where paper is separated from containers and metal, which yields higher-grade materials that can garner higher prices on commodities markets. The trade-off is that dual-stream requires more collection trucks.
The Brooklyn plant will first tear open and remove the plastic bags that so many New Yorkers use to package their recyclables. Glass is then crushed, separated and transported across New York Harbor to New Jersey where it will pass through a new, state-of-the-art x-ray machine for further sorting; contaminants like boron and leaded glass will also be removed.
Back in Brooklyn other recyclables run down a conveyer as magnets pull out ferrous metals. The remaining plastic and aluminum will be swirled through eddy currents, which will extract the aluminum. The container stream then flows through four ballistic separators, which act as a series of sieves and shakers to remove any remaining two-dimensional material, such as paper contaminants, from the three-dimensional containers. The various plastics and aseptic containers, which include milk cartons and juice boxes, pass through a series of near-infrared optical sensors that sort plastics based on polymer type. When a sensor finds what it’s looking for, like a PET bottle or juice carton, air jets launch the material out of the stream. Whereas most facilities are equipped with one or two optical sensors, Brooklyn’s has 16, which means it can sort nearly all the material automatically.
All that is not enough to put New York amongst national leaders, however. The city will also need to build or improve existing programs for organic waste, textiles and e-waste, according to Gonen. San Francisco, for instance, has been successful because it mandates and enforces residents and businesses also collect organic waste for composting. “Only about 35 percent [of what’s thrown out] is traditional recyclables,” Gonen says. “If you want to get above 40 percent, it’s impossible if we just focus on that part of the waste stream.”
Organic waste, including food scraps and yard trimmings, comprises about 35 percent of New York City’s waste stream. The city is launching a pilot program this year for collecting organic waste curbside that could be expanded to the entire city. Gonen says there are also plans to make it easier to recycle textiles and e-waste, which make up about another 10 percent of the total stream. The city will also have to revamp its efforts to engage and regulate the commercial sector, where recycling oversight is currently lax.
“A lot of it is infrastructure, but also communication and behavior change,” Gonen says. The Brooklyn facility will be equipped with a classroom for students to learn about recycling. New York will also use more barges to move the recycling, which is expected to displace around 418,400 vehicle kilometers annually. When asked if the city could reach San Francisco’s reported 80 percent recycling rate, Gonen didn’t hesitate. “Yes, we can definitely get close to that,” he says.
Although the U.S.’s largest metropolis is playing catch-up, the scale of the city and the variety of housing stock could provide lessons learned for many other U.S. cities looking to recommit to recycling. “If you can make it work in New York City,” Gonen says, “you can make it work anywhere.”