Thomas Outerbridge, the general manager of Sims Municipal Recycling, has been working on complex issues of waste management since the 1980s, when he worked on Maine’s first recycling plan. Since then, he’s worked at New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) on the design and implementation of its curbside recycling and composting programs, and he has consulted for government agencies and private companies interested in new technologies in the field. He knows well that no matter how sophisticated our recycling operations, our ability to reduce the amount of waste we send to landfills requires greater public awareness about where our trash goes after we throw it away and greater participation in separating out recyclables.
Outerbridge sat down with us at the new facility to discuss Sims’ work to expand recycling in the city through new infrastructure and public education, the markets for post-processed recycled material, the potential of large-scale composting, and the challenges and future of reducing waste in New York City.
Over your career, what have you observed to be the biggest changes in how cities recycle?
The major difference with New York today is the institutionalization of recycling. When I started at DSNY, the recycling program was just being rolled out, and it changed on a regular basis due to the budget. Various administrations would cut the program, reinstitute it, or change the frequency of collection to save money. This state of evolution made it very difficult to establish a consistent public message on what the program was and how to participate in it. Before Sims took over all recycling in 2003 on a 20-year contract, the City had short-term contracts with a number of private processors, mostly on three- or five-year contracts, which are the norm in other municipalities. That short time horizon results in a makeshift processing infrastructure, because there isn’t the long-term commitment that attracts substantial capital investment to build it up. The City really took charge of its infrastructure development by allowing companies to bid on a longer time frame.
What are some challenges of waste management particular to New York City?
We deal with very high volumes, but that is actually a good thing in our business. The materials we produce from recycled goods are not high value, so you need volume to justify putting up plants to process them. The city delivers these materials to us, so there are all the challenges of curbside collection and street parking. And as pure industrial areas have shrunk, our operations are inevitably closer to residential and recreational areas, which require a higher standard for controlling noise and odors. Some of that we can’t eliminate, like DSNY garbage truck traffic. That’s why we try to use barge and rail when possible.
Tell me about the facility where we are now, the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility (SMR) in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. What does it make possible that wasn’t before in terms of the location and technology?
Because we have rail on site, we are using rail to ship out recyclables for the first time in the city. We’re also on a waterfront pier, so we have a major barging operation. Most recyclables we process are brought in by barge from our Queens and Bronx collection facilities, and we barge out products to New Jersey post-processing. Those capacities have significant environmental, economic, and community benefits. One of the reasons Sunset Park was open to hosting this type of facility was because of our extensive use of water as opposed to needing more trucks to bring material here.
This facility also gave us expanded processing capacity in New York City as opposed to New Jersey. This spurs economic development and the City gets control over what is considered an essential piece of infrastructure. At the end of our contract, this facility reverts back to the City.
Because our core mission is aligned with the sustainable economy and a sustainable city, we wanted to go beyond having a state-of-the-art plant and to make it sustainable in a broader way. We worked with Nucor Building Systems, a pre-engineered metal building company that uses 99% recycled steel, to create buildings with high-recycled content. They are one of our biggest customers, so it’s likely we sold them a good chunk of the steel eventually used in construction. The whole tipping building is covered by a photovoltaic system, which until a couple months ago was the largest in the city. We’re handling all of our stormwater on site. To address sea level rise, we elevated the pier four feet with a blend of recycled crushed glass and rock from the city’s tunneling operations. We put in a small mussel cultivation installation, which our partnering group is using to collect data on how sea life contributes to water quality. There’s daylighting throughout the buildings, and we’re hoping to put up a wind turbine. I think that sort of investment is making a difference. It’s a high-profile project for our company as well as for the city. There has been a lot of attention from relevant trade journals and from other cities, and the fact that we hired an architect to design the facility has drawn attention to it as a new feature on the waterfront and as a means to understand the intricacies of the recycling process. To encourage that, we also built an education center.
How does the education center fit in with your larger role in helping the City meet its recycling goals?
Our education center will have exhibits, a theater, and a viewing bridge into the processing building for people to learn about the recycling process, their role in it, and why they should do it. Beyond our contractual role to process the city’s recyclables, we want to increase public participation in the program. If people don’t participate at home, the most sophisticated recycling plant in the world doesn’t mean anything.
Answering that question of how to get more people to recycle is one of the greatest challenges in New York. The density and variety of housing types, and the diverse and transient population, make it difficult to get the message to the individual and the materials out of the building in the right form. The city’s current participation rate is about 50%, which means that of all the materials people are asked to recycle through our curbside program (paper, cans, plastic, glass), half of it is being recycled and half is still going into the trash. Greater participation is the low-hanging fruit for improving our waste management: the city could double its recycling rate without buying additional trucks, building new facilities, or finding new markets for recycled material.
Walk me through the journey of a tin can, starting with when I throw it into my recycling bin.
The tin can will get collected by DSNY at the curb and taken to the nearest Sims facility. If it’s collected in the Bronx, it goes to our facility there, where we put it on a barge and ship it here. At that point, it’s mixed in with everything else. The barge gets unloaded onto our tipping floor, and the material is fed through the Liberator: a really large, low-speed shredder that rips apart big clumps of stuff packed together in the trucks. The can continues up conveyor belts, where metal objects get picked off with a magnet. We use a trommel screen to separate out the small metal, which goes under an air system that sucks off loose bits of plastic or paper. It then gets sent to our tin can baler where it’s compressed, along with an additional 650 to 700 pounds of tin cans, into a cube. Once we have enough cubes, they get loaded onto a rail car on site, the rail car goes down the waterfront to the “float bridge” across the harbor, and then it’s railed to a steel mill somewhere in the US.
With the exception of someone unloading the barge with a crane and someone loading the railcar, that process is 100% automated. No one touches the tin can. The mechanical systems aren’t perfect for every material so I do still have someone who is at a manual picking station for some materials. Aluminum for example: our equipment can separate it from other metals, but it can’t distinguish between an aluminum can, an aluminum pot or pan, or an aerosol can, and the markets for those materials are very different.
And in terms of customers, can you describe the market for the materials you produce?
Overall, it’s dynamic. The plastics industry is changing as new varieties come out. The steel business is older than modern recycling programs, and the clear glass bottle industry is also very established and stable. On the other hand, the “aggregate” business, where we send our unsorted colored glass, fluctuates significantly because it’s tied to construction and strongly affected by seasonal and economic shifts. We may start color-sorting that glass so it can go into higher-use markets like containers or fiberglass, but we were first focused on building the infrastructure for our clear glass operation and for the new plastics that are coming into use. We designed the facility to handle more ways of sorting with those plastic markets in mind.
Most of our markets are domestic, but Asia can be a strong market for certain materials. If the city were able to achieve a 100% participation rate, I think we would still be able to find a market for our materials. If not, that would be a nice problem to have — for people to all of a sudden be participating at such tremendous rates that the market can’t keep up. And we aim to continue to develop certain markets so that we can expand what people are allowed to put into the recycling program.
Are there materials for which recycling is not the most ecologically or economically sound strategy?
There are materials that we can’t recycle, for various reasons: the way they’re constructed, their technological limitations, or their value makes them unmarketable. Certain composite materials, like those in juice pouches, have this problem. They’re made out of this fusion of plastic and metal which is very hard to separate. I also don’t know anyone who’d actually buy it, because there’s not enough metal or plastic in there on its own. That kind of material is often inherently unrecyclable.
Do producers have a responsibility to consider the recyclability of a product they manufacture?
They aren’t required to and historically it was barely on the radar screen for most product designers and manufacturers. They’ll say there are so many benefits to using that material, so recyclability doesn’t drive the decision. That has changed a lot. Companies like Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Walmart are actually making decisions on packaging that take recyclability into consideration. They are being proactive, as part of corporate sustainability initiatives as well as, perhaps, net economic benefit in energy-efficiency terms.
How much of our waste stream is currently targeted for recycling? Tell me about what we aren’t recycling curbside.
We probably target about 45% of our waste stream for recycling right now, so even if we had a perfect 100% participation rate, 55% would still be going to the trash. That’s where new programs to go after food waste, electronics, or textiles come into play.
Organic waste is the big gorilla in the room, in terms of tonnage and environmental impact, because landfilling it is a bad idea. Composting is scalable in the city. There are probably more challenges associated with it in space-constrained New York, because it’s fairly land intensive. So I’ve been looking at anaerobic digestive systems, which are very similar to composting but much more compact. Unfortunately, the economics of composting are more challenging than recycling because the value of the end product — the soil — is lower, even if the ecological benefit is enormous. And the question of participation is harder. We still have challenges getting people to separate their bottles and cans. Now, you are asking people to separate their organic materials, and there’s just greater potential for odor or vermin. Composting programs have been quite successful in suburban areas, or in cities like San Francisco, where each household has its own cart and the responsibility for rolling it to the curb. In New York, living in multi-family buildings and high-rises — many of which pre-date recycling — presents another barrier to participation.
Where I think we can move ahead quite quickly is with the commercial and institutional waste stream. We obviously have a tremendous amount of restaurants and hotels that create large amounts of food waste in very concentrated forms.
When I was at DSNY, I worked on the Rikers Island waste composting program. We were not going to try to implement city-wide food waste collection just yet, so we looked to something more achievable. Rikers produces about 20 tons of food waste per day, and that waste is all centralized. It’s also complicated to get waste off the island, so that’s all the more motivation to minimize it. They have a horticultural program on the island with farms managed as part of an inmate training program, so we coupled the compost with that program. But even with all of those things in our favor and the Department of Corrections totally on board, that project still took many years to materialize.
What about getting to a place where people are actually consuming less?
That’s a whole other frontier: people designing things that either last longer or have less packaging per product. And if a product, at the end of its life, becomes a waste product, then it belongs in the recycling program. We participate in recycling industry associations that push very, very hard for that. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has “design for recycling” awards and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers produces guidelines on new plastics, adhesive, inks, or labeling that may present problems for recycling. Walmart just took the APPR specifications and sent them out to their packagers. They aren’t even in New York, but that doesn’t matter. They are such a giant consumer that if Walmart says it wants everyone to use polypropylene instead of polystyrene for their yogurt tubs, the market moves. So, there’s a long way to go on that front, but it’s a very promising field.
In February 2014, Business Insider sent a GoPro camera through the recycling facility alongside recyclables — take that journey in the video above.
Thomas Outerbridge is the General Manager of Municipal Recycling for Sims Metal Management. Sims Municipal Recycling processes and markets recyclables collected by the New York City recycling program.
* Annabelle Selldorf, principal of Selldorf Architects, is currently the President of the Board of Directors of The Architectural League. Urban Omnibus is a project of The Architectural League.