Where Do Our Blue Bin Recyclables Go in NYC?

I had the privilege of joining the August GrowNYC volunteer tour of the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in Sunset Park this past week. Identified by the iconic 160-foot wind turbine, it sits at the end of 29th Street right by the water. You can’t miss it as you walk down the street and start to smell the distinct aroma of recycled materials that may not have been rinsed before being collected on Recycle Day.

Sims has an awesome education center that is filled with digestible information about the types of items that come through the facility to get recycled. As you walk through the main room, you get to see the “life cycle” of common items, such as newspapers and water bottles, and how their broken down materials are recycled to make new products.

On the tour, we learned that the facility itself is doing its best to watch its environmental footprint. The wind turbine provides 2–3% of the education center building’s electricity, while the 600-kilowatt solar panel that sits on top of the sorting warehouse powers 17% of that building’s electricity. They are even working to restore marine life in NYC by establishing manmade reefs and growing mussels and oysters along their shore to both clean up the waters and restore the ecosystem! I learned that Sims chose this particular site by the water to build their facility because it would make it easier for barges to bring in recycled materials (from Queens, the Bronx, and Upper Manhattan). A single barge is equivalent to taking 100 trucks off the road, lowering the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from transporting garbage and trash in NYC.

MASSIVE piles of recycled plastic, metals, and glass! If you can see some strips dangling down from the piles, or the blue things scattered around the photo, those are plastic bags

I didn’t get a chance to ask how many trucks enter the facility each day, but I must have seen about a dozen in the two hours I was there go in and out of the area. There is a gap in knowledge that still exists about what can and can’t be recycled; of all of the items that arrive atSims, about 15% are incorrectly recycled and put in the wrong recycling bin (i.e. paper is put with plastic and often gets soiled, rendering them unusable and unable to be recycled so they end up in landfills), or should not be recycled at all.

When recycled trash enters this conveyer belt (where the bulldozer is dropping off the trash), the bags are ripped open and dropped down at the bottom left corner for them to get sorted

Additionally, plastic bags are often found in these masses because New Yorkers tend to bundle up their recycled items so it’s easier to toss, especially if they put them out on their sidewalks the night before, or accumulate them before tossing them down their apartment chute. Unfortunately, plastic bags and saran wrap should not be recycled since they clog up the machines and make them less efficient as they have to be removed. Over 30 tons of plastic film and bags end up at their facility…think about how light a plastic grocery bag is and how many bags it must take to reach that weight! We were taught that it’s best to minimize the number of plastic bags used to collect our recyclables as much as possible.

The orange boxes are the optical sensor machines that scan the recycled items and sort accordingly!

Sims has an incredible system of optical sensor machines that use infrared scanners to identify the type of recyclable item and sort accordingly. Plastics are sorted by their resin code, glass bottles and jars are scanned and sorted by color — clear/green/amber glass can be recycled to make new bottles and jars, while off-colored glass is changed to glass aggregate that is used for decoration, construction projects, pipes, and roads, and metals are pulled out of the belts by giant magnets! Any plastics and non-recyclable items that slip through the cracks are manually sorted and removed.

Inside this room, two people are manually sorting through the remaining stuff on the belt to make sure no non-recyclables such as plastic bags (what you can see entering the green buckets) get taken out

Once all the different recycled materials are sorted, they are compiled to make bales that are approximately 1–1,500 pounds each. Sims produces between 10–11,000 bales per month, and people can purchase by the bale for whatever purpose they choose.

To keep this post short, I’ll share a few follow-up posts on other things I learned while I was at Sims, including some not-so-common recycling tips that the average New Yorker may not know if they haven’t visited a recycling facility themselves!