Sunset Park

An inside look at how Brooklyn recycles

April 22, 2019 Paul Frangipane
Plastic water bottles are one of the most common pieces of litter in and around the Hudson River. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane

In New York City, where garbage cans overflow with water bottles and coffee cups, and plastic bags that once carried takeout get stuck in tree branches, recycling practices have a long way to go. Residents recycle about 17 percent of their total waste, which is half of what the city could be recycling under its current program.

Even with the status quo, there’s a long way to go. This Earth Day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to ban most single-use plastic bags provided by supermarkets and other stores. On April 11, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference outside the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in Sunset Park to announce an executive order to end city agencies’ purchases of single-use plastic items.

While the plastic bans roll in, we took a tour of that facility to break down how New York City sorts its residential recyclables.

The Facility

The facility on the 30th Street Pier in Sunset Park opened in 2013 and sorts about 1,000 tons of plastics, metal and glass a day.

About 12 percent of what the sorting plant receives is non-recyclable waste that ends up in a landfill, so the system separates the colorful spectrum of recyclables from that waste and divides each material to be shipped off to re-processors who will make them into new products.

The facility’s main room is equipped with 2.5 miles of conveyor belts, magnets, infrared cameras and other machinery to help sort the recyclable materials.
The facility’s main room is equipped with 2.5 miles of conveyor belts, magnets, infrared cameras and other machinery to help sort the recyclable materials. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Sims does not sort New York’s paper in house, but it still receives about half of the city’s recycled paper, most of which is sent to a paper mill on Staten Island.

The Process

The sorting process is a dizzying display of 2.5 miles of conveyor belt decorated with heavy machinery including magnets and infrared cameras.

Brooklyn recyclables arrive to the facility’s Tipping Floor by city garbage trucks, while the other boroughs’ materials come by barge. The items are dumped into a trash mountain before they’re pushed onto conveyor belts and headed into the facility’s main sorting room.

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The process begins in the Tipping Room.
The process begins in the Tipping Room. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Department of Sanitation trucks dump Brooklyn’s recyclables into the Tipping Room.
Department of Sanitation trucks dump Brooklyn’s recyclables into the Tipping Room. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

The first stop is the Liberator, a machine that opens up bags to help better organize the materials.

The materials are then taken over disc screens, a series of metal rods with discs around them that spin and shake so all glass shatters and falls through 2.5-inch holes, while other materials bounce on to continue their journey.

The facility is equipped with two of each system to increase efficiency.
The facility is equipped with two of each system to increase efficiency. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Then, any ferrous metals are sucked from the conveyor belt to a rotating magnet that drops them onto a separate belt.

A large magnet yanks ferrous metals from the conveyor belt to bring them onto their own route.
A large magnet yanks ferrous metals from the conveyor belt to bring them onto their own route. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
The magnet sends ferrous metals to a separate conveyor belt.
The magnet sends ferrous metals to a separate conveyor belt. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

All other materials get sent to the Ballistic Separator, where anything flat will walk up a series of paddles and be fed onto its own route. Larger items will roll down the opposite end to another route.

The chemical makeup of each material can vary, so optical sorters use infrared light to identify the different types. When the light finds heavier items, like plastic milk jugs, an air jet shoots them out onto their own belt, while everything else continues along.

Infrared cameras check the chemical makeup of items to help sort them.
Infrared cameras check the chemical makeup of items to help sort them. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

The last line of defense is a group of employees who watch what comes up on the belt and remove what doesn’t belong.

Before materials are sent to be baled, they’re checked by human workers who pick out items that don’t belong.
Before materials are sent to be baled, they’re checked by workers who pick out items that don’t belong. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Before the materials are shipped to re-processors up and down the East Coast and to Canada, they’re shaped into 1,000-pound bales.

The last stage in the facility is putting the separated materials into 1,000-pound bales to be shipped to re-processors.
The last stage in the facility is putting the separated materials into 1,000-pound bales to be shipped to re-processors. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

At their next facility, materials will be broken into flakes, cleaned and turned into pellets or blank-slate material, likely to be sold to a manufacturer who will use them in their products.

At separate re-processing facilities, materials are broken into flakes, cleaned and then turned into pellets or blank-slate material, likely to be sold to a manufacturer who will use them in their products.
At separate re-processing facilities, materials are broken into flakes, cleaned and then turned into pellets or blank-slate material. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

What’s Recyclable in New York City?

Luckily for New Yorkers, the city puts guides on each of their residential recycling bins — but there may still be some confusion about certain items. Kara Napolitano at Sims gave us a quick primer.

Cartons may seem like recyclable paper, but their coating actually fits them into the plastic category. Coffee cups are made out of paper, but their plastic liner currently makes them waste.

As for beverage bottles, you can keep the cap on. The tiny plastic pieces can fall through those 2.5-inch holes that are made for shattered glass and then won’t be recycled.

“Another thing people don’t always realize is recyclable is foil, so like foil trays or tinfoil, also Hershey’s Kisses wrappers, they are mostly metal so you can put them in the blue bin,” Napolitano said.

The ban may be on its way, but for now those plastic bags and any plastic films are not recyclable, so it’s best to throw them in the trash or don’t use them at all.

As Napolitano says, “If it’s plastic and you can smash it, you should trash it.”

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