Forums Recap: Recycling Today, How It Works and What You Can Do To Improve It
By Pamela Berns
If you’re a New Yorker who actively recycles, you probably know that when it comes to recycling in New York City, tissues count as garbage, not paper, ice cream containers can’t be recycled, and film plastics, such as grocery and freezer bags, shouldn’t share a bin with rigid plastics. You’re no doubt aware that you should donate hard cover books and old vinyl records not only so others can enjoy them as much as you did, but because they’re not recyclable in NYC’s recycling program. And you certainly know that New Yorkers recycle not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the law.
How’d you do? If you missed our August Monthly Forum, read on to learn what you need to know to fulfill your Zero Waste pledge in New York City. Hear what experts Joan Byrnes-Daly and Kara Ayn Napolitano had to say about how NYC’s trash travels from your kitchen to the marketplace, and what you can do to keep the City’s waste out of landfills. Joan is Senior Manager, Zero Waste Communications, Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability at the NYC Department of Sanitation, and Kara is the Education and Outreach Coordinator at Sims Municipal Recycling Facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
The Trash Trail: From Bins to Bales
Kara’s job is to educate the public about Sims, the largest Materials Recovery Facility (MRF, or as Kara and Joan pronounced it “merf”) in the country. Sims receives and sorts all of New York City’s residential plastics, metal and glass recycling—about a thousand tons per day. That number would double if more New Yorkers committed to recycling, Kara told the group. Currently, “residents are recycling only about 50 percent of what could be recycled. The rest is ending up in a landfill or incinerator.” Kara hopes that by understanding not only what we should recycle, but how it gets recycled, residents will be motivated to engage in more effective and consistent recycling practices.
The Sims process works best when items are properly sorted in the first place, or as Kara simply puts it, “You’ve got to put the right things in the right bins.” And once you see how Sims turns your waste into bales of reusable material that fetch a market price, you can understand why this matters. Sims is in the business of sorting rigid plastics, metal and glass. These materials are carted via truck and barge—including barges in the itinerary saves 100,000 miles of truck traffic each year. Then, machines with names like “The Liberator,” “Ballistic Separator,” “Eddy Current,” and “Optical Scanner” sort the materials in an automated step-by-step process that starts by “liberating” the trash from huge plastic bags, and then gradually sifts out the finer pieces. In a final quality control step, people take over to ensure that items the machines have missed are sorted out and removed. The useful materials are then compacted into bales and sold.
Missed materials may include paper and film plastic, which generally don’t make their way into Sims’ final products. While film plastic is recyclable and Sims will bale up and try to sell what turns up in the sorting process, the market for plastic film sorted at a MRF is “not great,” said Kara, so it “often ends up as waste.” The City’s recycling program is not actually designed to reclaim these materials. Plastic film recycling is a statewide program, but as of now it’s not heavily regulated, Joan explained. She encouraged us not to use, or at the very least reuse, plastic freezer and sandwich bags, and pointed to New York City’s take-back program, which requires grocery stores to take back and recycle plastic grocery bags. In March of 2020, Joan said, the grocery bags will be banned altogether, both in the City and statewide.
Beyond Plastics: Paper, Pizza and Pests
Although Sims might recover some paper during sorting, most of the City’s paper waste goes to Staten Island, where Pratt Industries runs a massive recycling plant that doubles as a paper mill and corrugating factory. And because organic waste represents a third of what New Yorkers throw away, DSNY also recycles yard waste, food scraps and food-soiled paper (yes, you can recycle those greasy pizza boxes!) through a separate curbside organics collection and composting program. Composting not only produces fertilizer and renewable energy; it also can help control the City’s challenging rodent population, said Joan.
Success Starts at the Source: You
Ultimately, the success of NYC’s Zero Waste program starts at the source: you and your building.That’s where Joan and DSNY come in. During her presentation and in a lively panel discussion afterward, Joan explained just how. She introduced a cornucopia of programs and services offered by DSNY and referred the audience to related resources on the website.
DSNY oversees all aspects of recycling, including paper, electronics, appliances, organics, and bulk recycling, and even has a list of places seeking donations, from computers to art supplies. In addition to providing residents, schools and institutions with detailed information on what, how, where and when to recycle, DSNY offers Zero Waste Building Maintenance Training and certification to supers and building staff, and enforces building compliance with the City’s recycling regulations.
The website has information on exactly what items to put in what bins, and on what New York City does and doesn’t recycle. It also includes pickup times and locations, and a place to order decals and signs for buildings and bins. “People are more inclined to recycle the right way,” said Joan, “when everything is clear and visible.” And you can download the DSNY official app, so you always have ready answers at your fingertips anytime and anyplace.
Recycling the New York City Way
It’s important to note that different municipalities recycle different items in different ways for different markets, and Sims and DSNY work together in a symbiotic partnership that reflects New York’s specific program. For example, some cities require that you carefully wash containers before recycling them, whereas NYC merely suggests it, as Sims isn’t hindered by the residual “contamination” in its facility. NYC still recycles glass, while other cities have stopped doing so. Kara explained that there’s not as big a market for recycled glass as there is for plastics, so for some MRFs, the expense of sorting it might not be worth the investment.
Joan and Kara demystified some misconceptions about recycling in the City, and encouraged the audience to also “trust [their] recycling instincts.” Here’s a list— by no means, finite— of some of NYC’s recycling Do’s and Don’ts that might surprise even the most dedicated recycler. See how many you can get right! Remember, this is a NYC-specific list, and may not apply in other cities.
- Styrofoam is not recyclable; in fact it’s banned in NYC. (Bet you got that one!)
- Besides freezer and sandwich bags, wax paper doesn’t make the cut either. So pack your picnic lunches in reusable containers.
- Large beverage cartons and small juice boxes are recyclable, but small juice pouches aren’t.
- You can leave the plastic tops on plastic bottles and jugs, but you should separate metal tops from glass bottles and jars (that’s recycling instinct in action, says Kara).
- While we’re at it, not all glass is recyclable, only bottles and jars.
- You can’t separate your glass from your plastic in your recycling bin. But New York State requires stores to take back glass soda bottles, so you can bring these with you when you visit the store for your next supply of drinks.
- You can recycle the big stuff, such as stoves, bicycles, file cabinets, and other items made of metal and/or plastics that are bigger than 4ft x3ft through the City’s recycling program.
- Appliances are appliances, electronics are electronics, and DSNY does not treat them equally.
- Before you leave your old AC or fridge in front of your building for recycling, you need to call 311 or visit https://on.nyc.gov/CFCRecovery to arrange for the City’s CFC Recovery Unit to remove the Chlorofluorocarbons.
- Under New York State law, disposing of electronic items with your other waste is illegal (you can find the list of these items on the DSNY website), but DSNY will help you sort this out through its ecycleNYC (PS Staples takes most of the items that the City and State don’t).
As the panel discussion began to wrap up, a participant asked, “What’s next?” Joan said that DSNY is working to set up buildings better for recycling, and has collaborated with the Center for Architecture to develop Zero Waste Building Design Guidelines for NYC. In both Joan’s and Kara’s estimation, the future calls for more education, creative design and advanced technology. But we don’t have to wait for the long run to see what’s possible. For starters, take a tour of the Sims facility and visit its interactive education center. And stop by the nyc.gov/recycle website and take a look around. You’d be amazed at how much progress is being made right here in our City already.
We’d like to thank Hafele for providing the space and catering for this important event and for supporting GreenHomeNYC’s Green Event pilot program, as our first venue partner to join us in this initiative. Thank you for your contribution to a sustainable New York.
You’ve read about it. Now come see it for yourself. Sign up below for our tour of the Sims Recycling Plant on October 14 at 6pm.