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A Q&A with Sam Silver of Sims Municipal Recycling Center in Brooklyn, NY

Sims operates a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) located in Brooklyn, NY.  It has a contract with the NY Department of Sanitation (DSNY) to process the recyclables from the curbside residential recycling stream across all 5 boroughs.  Commercial recycling is sent to various material recovery facilities around the city and is dependent on the private hauler for the building.  In some cases, the hauler has its own MRF.

Think Zero LLC (TZ):  How much material does Sims process every day?  Have you been getting more materials over time?

[Sam Silver] We receive and process 700- 800 tons per day in Brooklyn, or 66 tons per hour. Tonnages have increased steadily since the MRF began operating in December 2013, but the composition of the recycling stream is also changing. DSNY will be issuing a new Waste Characterization Study later this year which will show the changes we’ve seen since 2013.

We get the materials that are put in the blue bin – the metals, glass, plastic and beverage cartons.  Paper that is recycled in NYC typically goes to Pratt in Staten Island, and about 1/3rd of it passes through our marine transfer facilities first

TZ:  How much contamination do you see? 

[Sam Silver]

About 10-15% of what we receive every day is not recyclable.  We call this contamination or residue and it needs to be sorted out and sent to landfill.  For example, we get a lot of plastic bags and plastic film (i.e. saran wrap, snack chip bags) and that material can clog up our machines.  Last year we spent $1-2m across maintenance, labor, and lost production time due to plastic bags. We also receive full food and beverage containers which can’t be sorted properly.

TZ:  For those who don’t know what a MRF does, could you tell us what happens once a truck arrives at your facility?

[Sam Silver] Once we get the materials at our facility, we push it onto a conveyor belt that takes it through a mostly automated process that sorts the material into its specific category (steel, aluminum, glass, #1 PET plastic, #2 HDPE plastic, #5 Polypropylene, etc.).  For example, we have large drum magnets that capture the ferrous (magnetic) metals, disc screens to break and filter out glass, and ballistic separators which split up 2D and 3D materials to remove contaminants.  We have 16 optical sorting cameras which identify different types of plastic and separate them accordingly. 

TZ:  Do you have any tips on what people can do to help MRFs ensure that more items get recycled?

[Sam Silver] There are two big things the public can do to help. The first is: try to recycle more! We are missing about 50% of all the recyclables in NYC simply because they’re being placed in the trash instead of recycling bins. The second is to make sure containers are empty of food or liquid before being put out for recycling. A little bit of this or that is fine and usually not an issue for us to sort, but we can’t process the particularly dirty items.

 TZ:  What happens once you sort the material – how do you make money on recycling?

[Sam Silver]

We are paid by the city to receive and sort the materials (@$75/ton vs. @$110/ton for landfill).  Once we sort and bale the materials, we sell it to processors in the US and Canada. Each material has its own commodity market and the prices change frequently (and are pegged to national indexes).

We send our metal to smelters.  And our plastic gets sent to processors which create plastic pellets that can be used to make new products. 

 There are some nuances.  For example, with glass, we can only sell clear glass currently. Mixed colors of glass are mixed into a recycled glass aggregate (RGA) at our glass plant, for use in civil construction projects. We are working on upgrading our sorting technology so that we can separate out additional colored glasses to start selling those to bottlers as well. 

TZ:  Do you accept materials at this facility that other facilities in the region do not?

[Sam Silver]
Due to the investments made by Sims and the city at our NYC facilities, New Yorkers have a wider range of accepted materials than many other regions. This includes #5 plastics (polypropylene), bulky rigid plastics, and cartons.

TZ:  What are some of the strangest items found?

[Sam Silver] We do get aspirational recycling, or “wish-cycling”, where people just hope that something  can be recycled.  We see a lot of basketballs, bowling balls , and even tires.  None of those can be recycled by us.  I saw a trombone the other day which was a bit odd, but it’s all metal so can be recycled. 

TZ:  Can you recycle….

[Sam Silver]

Credit card - No
Filing cabinets - Yes
Binders – No, but great to donate
Pens – Remove the ink cartridge (or refill!)
Ceramic glasses – No
Broken glass – No
Textbooks – Yes to softcover; No to hardcover (donate!)
Toothbrushes – No too small

You can always look at this site to figure out what can and can not be recycled.  http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/site/home

TZ:  Any other things to know?[Sam Silver] It doesn’t need to be perfectly clean for us to get it recycled, but it helps! We miss a lot of aluminum because folks assume it’s too dirty and trash it, like lasagna trays or even Hershey’s Kisses wrappers.