Our interview with Scholes Street Recycling Center
After our site visit, Allie sat down with Adam Mitchell to get some tough questions answered.
By Allie Molinaro, Think Zero LLC
This September, TZLLC visited the Scholes Street Recycling Center in Brooklyn, NY to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing the recycling industry and how they can be solved. The facility, which opened in the 1990s, is responsible for sorting, baling, and shipping its client's recyclables (all commercial businesses) from New York City to mills throughout the world. We spoke with Head of Resource Management and Business Development Adam Mitchell and his colleagues Paul and Michael to learn more.
TZ: What trends have you seen currently within the industry? What concerns or challenges have you seen?
SSR: Locally there has been more consolidation in the hauling side of our industry in the last year, and disposal costs increased more in the last 6 months than we’ve seen in a while. The recent heightened enforcement of federal trucking regulations governing long-haul truckers’ hours of service has also reduced the supply of available truckers to come to our facility.
TZ: What are the top items you see come into your facility that are not actually recyclable?
SSR: Food waste, flexible plastic packaging, and waxed cardboard.
TZ: Which items that are not recyclable are most disruptive to your recycling operations (if any) and what problems do they cause?
SSR: Glass containers are the most disruptive. As glass is collected in the truck and transported, it breaks into sharp pieces. These broken shards become embedded in cardboard as the cardboard and MPC streams are commingled, which decreases the value of the cardboard and in some cases renders it not viable at all. Waxed cardboard can also be a challenge to sort as it looks like a regular box.
TZ: What happens to bags of recycling that are too contaminated? I've always heard that if there are lots of non-recyclables in a bag, the entire bag gets thrown out. Is this true?
SSR: If it hasn’t broken open in the truck already, a bag that is dripping with food or juice would get pulled out and treated as trash.
TZ: What is your average contamination rate? Have contamination rates increased or decreased since switching to single-stream and over the years in general?
SSR: Our average contamination rate is 15%, meaning that 15% of what we receive are items that are either not recyclable or become tainted during collection. Single stream creates more contamination, so we have seen an increase since switching over. It’s a tradeoff because while single stream decreases the quality of materials, it increases the trucking efficiency for our hauling division.
TZ: Who do you send the materials to after they are sorted? Where are they located?
SSR: We send plastics and containers to Sims Recycling in Brooklyn and we’ve sold some of our plastic film to Trex in Virginia. The other materials are sold through brokers who sell to a variety of export markets including Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and India.
TZ: How many times can plastic and paper be recycled before it must be landfilled or incinerated?
SSR: Plastic is usually down-cycled, meaning it’s remanufactured once. Paper fibers grow too short to be recycled again after around 6 times.
TZ: What end products are your recycled materials used to make?
SSR: Most of our materials are used to make fiber board and new metal containers. The plastic film we send to Trex is used to make composite decking. The plastic we send to Sims can be used to make carpeting, clothing, piping, bottles, etc.
TZ: What policy changes need to occur to support the recycling business?
SSR: That’s a big question. Mandating recycled content is one big step, it’s been tried before in many different ways. Maybe the Canadian model of producer responsibility would be something to look at. Canada’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy mandates that a producer’s responsibility for a product—physical and/or financial—is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle. This shifts responsibility upstream in the product life cycle to the producer and away from municipalities and taxpayers.
TZ: How has China's National Sword Policy impacted your recycling center?
SSR: The Green Sword had a huge impact on the domestic value of a wide variety of recyclables. Combined with Trump’s trade war, which resulted in the Chinese instituting import tariffs on scrap material, there has been a lot of pain in the US recycling industry. The BIC’s 10% increase in the maximum rates haulers can charge reflects the realities of these increased operating costs.
TZ: Would you provide a brief overview of the economic model of the MRF business?
SSR: Buy something for $0.01 sort it, process it, and sell it for $0.04. It’s really is that simple.
TZ: What are the unique challenges of running a MRF in Brooklyn?
SSR: Our space is challenging. Domestic mills are reluctant to truck out of Brooklyn because of the transportation costs. As mentioned earlier, federal trucking regulations have also become a challenge because many truckers cannot get here without going over their hour limits. Another challenge is that the disposal facilities (landfills and incinerators) closest to urban areas like New York City use up their daily tonnage faster, allowing them to raise prices and thus increasing our operating costs. But East Brooklyn is also the geographic center of Manhattan/Queens and Brooklyn, which makes it an ideal location for collecting materials from across the city all in one place.
A group of Think Zero LLC team members with members of the Mr. T's recycling center team