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What Happens to Recyclables After They Hit the New York City Curb?

By Rebecca Noah
March 15, 2017

The raw stuff. Photo by Rebecca Noah

New York City has one of the largest recycling programs in the nation, and for good reason: it generates 12,000 tons of garbage per day. And though in  December 2013 it launched a state-of-the-art facility to manage it all, there is still a lot of recycling to be accomplished. The city currently recycles only about 17% of its total waste.

I’m an environmentalist. I clip and chop materials for my compost. I have reached peak-tote bag in an effort to reduce plastic consumption. I sort paper from plastic, glass, and metal. I bring any plastic bags I’m forced to use to my local grocery store for stretched plastic recycling. But I’m also a skeptical environmentalist. I want to make sure my efforts are making a difference. So, I headed to Sunset Park, Brooklyn to visit the Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility, one of several Sims Municipal Recycling facilities.

Sims Municipal Recycling is a private company that has a long-term contract with NYC to manage and sort through the tons of recycling waste that 8.4 million residents produce daily.  Each day, nearly 1,000 tons of curbside recycling is picked up by New York City Department of Sanitation.  The Sims Recycling facility processes more than 200,000 tons of plastic, glass, and metal each year.

The Works. Photo by Rebecca Noah

Recyclables are brought by barge to one of four Sims facilities in the city. Sims uses barges to transport the material to reduce truck noise nuisances and greenhouse gas emissions. It would take 100 trucks to move what one barge can carry. The barges make their way to the Sims facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. There, the recyclables are pushed onto the conveyor belt of a machine named The Liberator.

The Liberator got its name because its sole purpose is to “liberate” the recyclable materials from the plastic bags in which they tend to arrive. The Liberator shreds all of the material and their plastic bags so that the recyclables are accessible and ready for sorting. The sorting machinery looks like a Rube Goldberg machine; a maze of multidirectional conveyer belts with many moving parts. Each belt and piece of machinery has a way of sorting out the material.

After shredding by the Liberator, the material is sorted by the Trommel, which has different size holes and bounces materials around so that any glass materials will break and fall through to another conveyer belt. A large magnet removes all ferrous metals next, while non-ferrous metals, like aluminum, and the plastics move on.

Next, the materials go through optical sorting. A special laser is used to sort the different types of plastic, which are also identified by the numbers typically found on the bottom of those containers. The laser searches for a type of plastic and directs a blast of air to shoot it onto another belt or into a bin.

After sorting the plastic, it is on to the final stage: a machine called the Eddy Current Separator, which separates the aluminum from the rest. Paper, plastic, aluminum, ferrous metals, and glass are all sorted through this process. Just 12 percent of the materials that arrive at Sunset Park end up in a landfill. This number includes items that are not recyclable or due to machine error.

The piles of plastics, metal, and glass that eventually emerge from the other end are neatly sorted and compressed into a three-foot by four-foot cube made up entirely of one type of material. The process takes about 10 minutes from start to finish. The resulting cubes of neatly sorted recyclables are called bales. Those bales are sold and shipped across the country to manufacturers who turn them into new consumer products.

See this journey for yourself through a GoPro video here, via Business Insider.