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Opinions & Observations: Earth Day 2021, and what Brooklyn should embrace: Advanced Recycling

April 20, 2021 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
Late-day sun casts a silvery glow on New York Harbor, which is seen from the Brooklyn Bridge.

This Earth Day, April 22, marks 51 years since 20 million people headed into the streets across the United States in 1970 to advocate for cleaner air and water, and a more thoughtful approach to how we treat and preserve wildlife and natural resources around the globe. This early advocacy spurred the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and a decade of forward-thinking environmental legislation.

More than half a century later, the political climate has created uncertainty and concern about the state and future of our actual climate, as the scale and frequency of catastrophic weather events and natural disasters appears to be growing. Thankfully though, there seems to be a true acknowledgement by elected leaders that we must address climate and environmental dangers, and we need to do it soon. Just this week, officials lauded investment in the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal that will create a hub for offshore wind production and green jobs. This recognition that a focus on climate-friendly innovations is not a zero-sum game – that sustainable industries create sustainable jobs – will be key to the success of these efforts.

While energy is often central to discussions about our green future, just as significant is recycling and waste removal. Innovations in plastic production have vastly improved countless aspects of our lives, from communication to safe travel to shipping and even fighting COVID. But only some 20% of plastics get recycled in New York – not because New Yorkers don’t recycle but because the state’s outdated recycling infrastructure simply is not able to recover and repurpose the vast majority of plastics. In fact, facilities like the one in Sunset Park – New York City’s only recycling center – can only handle some soft plastics and items like plastic bottles and jugs, with the rest going to landfills across the state. 

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But as science has shown us a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel via vaccines, the recycling industry and science has worked tirelessly to address the recycling gap, and there is hope in a burgeoning technology known as “advanced recycling.”

Advanced recycling takes post-use plastics and breaks them down into their molecular components, resulting in 100% new virgin-quality plastic that unlike what traditional recycling produces can be used in virtually any application. Here in New York capturing and sending just 25% of plastics to advanced recycling facilities would divert nearly half a million tons of waste from landfills annually. And based on what we’ve seen from New Yorkers, that seems like a floor – not a ceiling.  

What’s more, this technology is not just a boon for our environment – it also promises substantial economic benefits for our state, including $502 million in new annual economic output and thousands of new jobs. 

New York should confront its waste issue by following the science and embracing advanced recycling just as 10 states across the country already have. Significantly, it comes at no cost to the taxpayer: in other states, it’s been private companies that have invested in these advanced recycling facilities and created jobs and economic activity in the process.

Over 51 years, Earth Day has become a call to action. Those actions include innovating and improving how and what we create, preserve and consume. When New York embraced recycling, it was an important first step but there was no time to rest on one’s laurels as plastics remain a key component in so much of what we do. Advanced recycling is an opportunity to further ensure we can continue to benefit from innovations in plastics while staying the course toward a more sustainable future supported by sustainable jobs.

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