What materials actually get recycled? How does recycling even work?
At Public Goods these are some of the questions that keep our product developers up at night. The more we understand recycling infrastructure, the easier it is for us to create packaging that doesn’t end up in a landfill or the ocean.
Rather than losing more sleep, we decided to get some answers by touring a recycling facility. We know there is plenty of information about recycling online, but nothing beats seeing the process in person.
Because our headquarters is in New York City, we chose the Sims Sunset Park Materials Recovery Facility in Brooklyn. The purpose of this center is to intake, sort and process all of NYC’s residential recycling submissions. Sims then sells the recyclables to companies that use these materials to manufacture products or construct buildings.
The facility is situated at the end of a long plaza that extends into the water. This location allows barges to deposit materials.
As we walked from the entrance of the plaza, through the security gate and toward the cluster of buildings, we were struck by several sights. The first was a lone windmill that towered over the campus. Later we learned that it is the only windmill in the city, and it provides 1.5 to 2.5% of the facility’s electricity. 60,000 square feet of solar panels supply up to 12.5% of the building’s power.
From a distance the facility appears to sit right on the water, but the buildings are actually elevated to avoid flooding during natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Connected to the small harbor are mussel ropes, frayed ropes that become habitats for mussels. These creatures bring more life to the ecosystem, and they are useful for water filtration.
On the side of the path to the facility entrance we noticed massive clumps of compressed paper, scrap metal and freight cars covered in graffiti. Sims uses a local train track to efficiently transport materials to vendors and other Sims properties.
Right outside the facility entrance there is a garden of pebbles made from recycled glass. This crushed glass is valuable for construction projects.
Before the guided portion of the tour began, we explored Sims’ recycling education center, a sort of museum with interactive exhibits and factoids on the history of waste management. We didn’t have much time to play around, but we were able to test a few machines that offered a small, limited version of the complex process we would soon witness.
Our tour officially started in a presentation room where Diana, our guide and a Sims employee, walked us through some slides about recycling infrastructure and the Sims model specifically. Immediately we could tell she cared deeply for the environment and her fellow human beings. For example, she went out of her way to explain how landfills disproportionately impact poor communities.
Diana said New York City spent about $335 million on landfills in recent years. Some of this money is allocated to shipping waste to other states, including North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Everyone in the tour group had questions about recycling, and Diana answered all of them. If you live in New York City, use these insights — some of which might surprise you — to improve how you recycle:
- Sims can’t recycle soft plastics such as bags and styrofoam (LDPE plastic).
- Most recycling centers do not have the technology to recycle textiles. If you have clothing you don’t want to wear anymore, you should donate it to a thrift shop or the Salvation Army so it can be reused.
- Electronic waste is very harmful to the environment. Do not throw it out or try to recycle it. Look up local centers that will be able to process it responsibly.
- Cartons (orange juice and milk cartons, etc.) should be deposited with plastic and glass. Do not place them in the paper section of recycling bins.
- You can put plastic cutlery in the plastic and glass section as well.
- Always trash coffee cups. They have a special composition that makes them difficult to recycle.
- If you can rip a paper substance easily and it isn’t food-soiled, it can most likely be recycled.
- Keep the caps on plastic bottles. Taking this step actually makes these materials easier for recycling workers to process.
- Remove the lids and caps from glass containers.
- Keep the caps on cartons.
- Don’t flatten cartons. Keep them as they were when you bought them. This step is important because a stage in the Sims recycling system sorts by two vs. three-dimensional materials.
- Tin foil can be recycled, even if it is a bit soiled by food. Remember to crumple this material into a ball.
- You don’t need to squish aluminum cans.
- Don’t recycle shrink wrap. It can cause problems for recycling workers.
- Broken umbrellas can be thrown in the metal, plastic and glass section of recycling. Metal is very valuable to Sims, so they are willing to remove fabric from metal.
- Removing adhesive labels from plastic and glass containers is helpful but not necessary.
- Washing is important. Recycling workers appreciate consumers who thoroughly wash their plastics, glass and metal before recycling.
After the info session was done, it was time to see the system in action. Diana introduced us to the Liberator, a massive machine that opens plastic bags and vacuums them to ensure nothing is left behind.
Like many municipalities, Sims operates with a dual stream system: one stream for paper, another for everything else. Once they are separated into these two categories, the materials travel through a series of conveyor belts and sensors that gradually sort everything into plastic, metal and glass.
These systems scan for various physical qualities, including weight, dimensions and substance. There are magnets, for example, that suck up metal and separate it from glass and plastic.
Toward the end of the line, a quality control team examines the recyclables. Ultimately the materials are mashed into huge bales and prepared to be sold.
We spoke to Diana about working with Sims to test how recyclable our packaging really is, and she happily obliged. Our long-term goal is for as much of our packaging as possible to be easily recyclable, compostable or biodegradable.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson we learned from the tour is that you shouldn’t make any assumptions about how waste management works. The online info is a start, but we encourage you to take a tour of local recycling facilities, as well as other waste management centers. Once you see what happens to your waste, you can trace the journey back to your doorstep and figure out how to live more sustainably.
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