The Recycling Giant That Handles New York’s Metal, Glass, and Plastic

The uniqueness of New York City is what makes it a top international destination and the country’s centerpiece for economic and artistic creativity. Unfortunately, the amount of waste it produces is equally as unique, complicated, and costly. “About 14 million tons of waste are thrown out each year. It costs the city almost $400 million annually just to transport what it collects from homes, schools and government buildings (by rail, barge or truck) to incinerators or landfills as far away as South Carolina.” (NYT)

City officials understand the significance of all that garbage, not just on their city budget, but also on the environment. In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the OneNYC Plan, which seeks “zero waste” by 2030. Zero waste, of course, doesn’t mean a hard zero, but that 90% of waste will be diverted from the landfill. There are some items that still can’t be feasibly recovered, like diapers or plastic gift cards.

Getting to 90% in 13 years is going to be considerably challenging given that New York City now only stands at a 17% diversion rate (recycling and organics combined). How do they plan to achieve this ambitious goal? One thing is for sure, Sims Municipal Recycling, a division of Sims Metal Management, will play an increasingly active role.

Sims’ Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility (MRF) is located on the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal along the East River. Since New York City currently operates a dual stream recycling program, most paper is collected separately from metal, glass, plastic, and cartons (MGPC), and sent to one of the numerous paper recyclers around the city.

While the MSW Consultants team was in New York City for a month, performing the city’s latest waste characterization study, we were invited by Sims’ Educational & Outreach Coordinator, Sam Silver, to come join him for a tour. The drive from Fresh Kills Landfill, where our sort took place, was a hop, skip, and a jump over the Verrazano Bridge. Sims’ Sunset Park facility loomed on the water’s edge facing both the Statue of Liberty and the Lower Manhattan skyline, as the sun faded over the horizon.

Currently, the facility is built to handle MGPC material coming from the residential and commercial sectors. The sorting machinery is top of the line, coming from Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, who designed and retro-fitted a variety of sorting technology to handle 800 tons per day (up to 1000 TPD), and 66 tons per hour.

We started the tour in the educational room, which was amazingly decorated like a recycling science museum, displaying colorful pictures and interactive games along with  accompanying information. Sims encourages as many school groups, community organizations, companies and people who are interested, to come visit, stressing education as a boon to both their and the environment’s success. Many of the rooms’ pictures showed materials alongside captions that explained the long process it takes to be broken-down and manufactured into a new product. (I will be coming out with subsequent posts specifying the lifecycle of most recyclable materials from cradle to being reincarnated as a new product.)

Sims education room

Next, Mr. Silver led us to a balcony that overlooked the tipping floor. This is where sanitation trucks dump the transparent recycling bags after collection, as well as where barges unload arriving from marine transfer stations in far-away parts of the city.  A loader operator spends all day shoveling piles of material onto a conveyor belt, which leads it into the separation process. And that’s where things really get interesting…

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The material starts out by getting run through a slow-speed shredder (a.k.a. “The Liberator), which frees any bagged material, then is led into the next room where the majority of the sorting takes place. The sorting floor is a jungle of conveyor belts and machinery that weaves across all the room’s usable space. First, disc screens break and filter out glass for further processing at Sims’ Jersey City facility. At the belt’s front, a large magnet sucks out any steel food cans, and other ferrous metals. Loops of electrical current, otherwise called Eddy Currents, separate out the non-ferrous metals, such as aluminum and copper from non-reactive material, and Trommel Screens are used for separation of larger metals that require shredding. The latest technology utilized by MRFs around the country, is the optical sorter. A mechanism that uses near-infrared lights to decipher which plastic resin type a material is, then sorting it into its specific categories #1-7. Optical sorting cameras can also tell the color of different pieces of glass, and reach a minimum of cross-contamination.

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Plastic bags and film is still a monumental challenge for all MRFs, and especially those like Sims that use screens. Ballastic separators are used to remove 2D materials, like plastic bags, from the rest of the 3D material, as well as various vacuums to pull out bags which can get carried along with the metals.  Any items that are too large are pulled out by hand-sorters.

Eventually, the materials are ushered along to balers that condense them into a neat 3-dimensional block; ready for shipping. There are a few out-of-place materials per bale, but they remain remarkably uniform considering how variable New York City’s MGPC recycling stream can be, and all the steps an item goes through to be recovered.

With New York City potentially making the switch to a single stream recycling program by 2020, Sims can expect to see more tonnage come through their doors, including materials such as paper and cardboard, but also should prepare for much more contamination. In order to achieve zero waste, city officials are using single stream as a strategy to increase participation of businesses and residents, who won’t have to worry any longer about which recycling bin to throw their consumed item. Although, what they need to factor in is the simultaneous boost in materials that don’t belong in recycling when people are given more leeway. It has played out all over the country time and time again, creating lower-grade commodities to eventually hit the market.

A few months ago, China, the largest foreign importer of recoverable material, enacted National Sword (following up from its Green Fence initiative in 2013), a restriction on the acceptance of foreign waste, which will severely hurt recycled plastic and low-grade paper sellers across the world. The ban happened for more reasons than one, and no one is solely to blame, but low quality shipments from the U.S. contributed significantly to the crackdown. I imagine the problem would be less severe if all New Yorkers took a visit to Sims’ Sunset Park in Brooklyn… especially their education room!

Contact Sam Silver for a tour at sam.silver@simsmm.com, or book a tour directly through
their online calendar: simsrecycling.acuityscheduling.com

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One thought on “The Recycling Giant That Handles New York’s Metal, Glass, and Plastic

  1. Hey Charlie,

    I just read your article New York’s Sims recycling program. Very good article – well written and interesting. Thanks for sending it to us. – Steve.

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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