New York City is famous for many things, but having a high recycling rate isn’t one of them. Libby Peake visits the city’s new waterfront materials recovery facility to learn if this is about to change
Unlike most of its North American counterparts, New York is known as a walker’s city. In addition to being so compact (and vertical), this may well be because gridlock is so common in the city’s gridiron layout, making driving a real hassle – which brings me, rather tangentially, to the city’s recycling woes. Currently, the municipal waste diversion rate hovers at a rather paltry 15 per cent (although former mayor Michael Bloomberg set the relatively ambitious target of 30 per cent recycling by 2030), and attempting to transport more recycling through the city would only make the congestion worse, you would think.
You’d be wrong, though, as New York’s first major materials recovery facility (MRF) has recently opened on the Brooklyn waterfront, where it will receive the bulk of the city’s plastics, glass and metals by barge. International recycling firm Sims Metal Management, which operates the MRF that’s been 10 years in the making, estimates that utilising the city’s extensive waterways will remove approximately 240,000 miles of annual refuse vehicle travel from its roads.
Location was key in choosing the site at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, which has seen more than US$110 million (£66 million) transform it from a decrepit pier and 11-acre police impound lot to a ‘state-of-the-art’ recycling facility with ample transportation infrastructure. Tom Outerbridge, Sims Municipal Recycling General Manager in New York, explains: “There were two big factors in choosing the location; one was geographic dispersion – it had to be geographically well dispersed from our other facilities – and the second was having really good transportation infrastructure.
“Transportation is a big part of the business, a big part of the cost, and a big part of the environmental impact of the business. So, we receive material by barge from Queens and by truck from Brooklyn. We brought rail onto the site, and we rail out tin cans (and are looking to rail out other commodities), and we barge out bulk metal to our scrap metal operation in [New] Jersey and glass to our glass plant in Jersey. And then we truck out baled commodities – plastics, aluminum, cartons and so on.”
Outerbridge admits that, despite the added environmental benefits, the main reason Sims took the approach of using barges wherever possible was financial, as more traditional trucks are very, very inefficient: “In New York, with transportation, it can take an hour and a half to drive across the city with small amounts of material – some trucks could come in with as little as two tonnes, and better trucks might come in with maybe four tonnes, compared to 400 to 450 on a barge.”
What’s more, the barges have the added benefit of acting as floating storage space in a city where every square foot is valuable. “The barges provide us with an element of flexibility – they’re sort of like floating tipping floors”, Outerbridge says. “So, if we’re coming up on a holiday season, post-holiday, we’re going to get an enormous amount of material in a short amount of time, we’ll make sure our barges are empty so we can just fill them up. Or, if we know we’re going to shut down for two or three days to work on pieces of equipment, then we fill up barges, again, just to provide buffering capacity. We never have enough storage capacity, and it’s cost prohibitive to have buildings with massive amounts of storage capacity, so we use barges for that.”
But although New York’s waterways have proved a boon in this sense, they can also be a curse, as was demonstrated by the damage the city suffered at the hands of Hurricane Sandy in 2013. Sims, however, had thought ahead on this matter, and the then-unfinished Sunset Park MRF emerged unscathed from that episode despite its position on the waterfront. “We decided a long time ago in anticipation of sea level rise – which wasn’t yet formally part of anyone’s agenda, but was being talked about – to elevate this site, or all of the site with buildings on it”, Outerbridge explains. “So, we elevated about half of the site by about four feet, using our recycled crushed glass [as well as ‘mole rock’ from the city’s tunnelling operations].
“So that meant that the elevated bits were out of Sandy’s top elevation. If we hadn’t elevated the site, it would have been about two feet under water. And then, after that, we also elevated all of our pads where we have our electrical substations, and we’re still now just less than a foot out of FEMA’s [the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s] 100-year flood plan, whereas if we hadn’t done this, we would have been three feet below it. This was our 40-year insurance plan, but now it’s turning out to be more of a 10-year plan.”
And though Outerbridge can laugh at that statement now, matters were far from funny at Sims’s other, older facilities in the area, which were built before sea level rise was even being talked about. Sites in Staten Island, Queens and New Jersey “were down for a while and suffered millions of dollars of damage”, according to the area’s general manager.
These sites aren’t being taken out of commission now that the Sunset Park MRF is receiving recyclables, though. At the time of my visit, the site was accepting approximately 55 per cent of New Yorkers’ glass, metals and plastics (along with 12-15 per cent contamination), but Outerbridge expects to eventually receive roughly two-thirds of the city’s recyclables: “Other material will still be processed in Jersey because we receive material directly by truck there from Staten Island and Lower Manhattan, so it doesn’t make sense to barge it here. We have the capacity here to run it all, but we’ll keep our Jersey facility in operation.” According to Outerbridge, moreover, the facility was never designed to handle paper, which is collected separately and then sent on to paper reprocessors.
The site’s transportation situation isn’t the only thing that makes this MRF a bit different from most: it was also designed by an award-winning architect, which Outerbridge admits is “very unusual in our business”. Selldorf Architects, which is best known for working on art galleries and interiors, took on the challenge of making the site a bit more elegant than the average MRF. Outerbridge explains the logic: “Because this is our largest capital investment all over the world, and probably our highest profile project, and we’re in a prominent location on the Brooklyn waterfront, we decided to do that extra step of looking at the overall aesthetics of the place. We hired Selldorf Architects, and they had fairly limited leeway – there wasn’t any swooping, billion-dollar Frank Gehry thing going on here – but the architects embraced that challenge.” Measures to improve the aesthetics included using less angular corrugated siding (made from 99 per cent recycled steel) to create a more uniform look, and work on the overall site plan to ensure that the visitor facility, which is part of Sims’s contract with the city, could be right on the waterfront while also “separating it from all the truck traffic”. So, visitors from all over the city (and abroad!) can visit the site safely and learn much-needed lessons about recycling – though it’s unlikely any of them will arrive by barge…