The Life of Blue Bin Recyclables ♻️

The Life of Blue Bin Recyclables ♻️

In August, I toured the NYC Sims Recycling Center with GrowNYC, which is where all the blue bin recyclables go (plastics, glass, and metal). It was so much fun! I always wondered how recycling worked after the Department of Sanitation curbside pick-ups.

Fun fact: NYC has one of the largest recycling centers in the nation!

The trucks unload the recyclables into a large drop-off area, with 800 tons processed per day. Barges also transport recyclables from Bronx and upper Manhattan, reducing the amount of vehicle traffic on the roads. The trucks keep driving and pushing the mounds higher, creating bigger mountains that eventually fall into the conveyer belts.

SOOO much “recyclables”

Once items are on the belt, they are moved through the sorting process.

At the beginning of the sorting belt, the items are thrown so glass can crush and be removed. Then a gigantic magnet pulls ferrous metals (ex: steel).

One of the biggest benefits of recycling is the energy savings.

Sam Silver, GrowNYC

The remaining items goes through the belt for plastic sorting. The machine is able to identify what type of plastic it is with optical sorting cameras with infrared light. The first area is looking for plastic #1. Once the machine identifies the object as a #1, it shoots out a specific amount of air so that the object continues on the correct conveyer belt.

Items that the machine cannot identify are sent along a different belt for manual human sorting. Items that are put inside each other also cannot be identified and sent for manual sorting (ex: if you put a plastic fork into a plastic takeout container).

Then the remaining plastics move on to be sorted for #2 plastic. I don’t recall how many plastic sorting cycles it goes through, since not all plastics are desirable (meaning, there is no buyer for the plastic compacted cubes or it cannot be recycled efficiently).

A belt near the end of the sorting journey is charged with changing currents (known as Eddy Currents), making non-ferrous metals able to jump off the belt and attracted to the large spinning magnet (ex: aluminum foil). Did you know that even dirty aluminum covered in food can be recycled? The compacted metal cubes get heated at very high temperatures (400+ F), so any food scraps will fall off — although you may want to rinse it to prevent pests. Watch the Eddy Currents in action:

Finally, all plastic bags end up dropped into a big trash bucket. The plastic bags do not get recycled, and, unfortunately, ends up in landfill. I also learned that while large companies (Target, CVS, Walgreens, etc) take back plastic bags for recycling, the requirements for the actual recycling are not clear. It also doesn’t help that customers throw regular trash into the bins…

A few people asked me about the smell on Instagram about the smell: it’s more like a mildewy plastic; it wasn’t bad like rotting food (compost smells 🙊) and my nose got used it to by the end of the tour.

The Sims Center also did a test to recycle styrofoam. They painted it different colors to see if the machine can identify it. Any styrofoam that made it to the belt without being crushed was NOT identifiable. While some styrofoam products have a recycle #6 sign, it’s really not possible and there’s no market demand for it (meaning no one will buy large compacted cubes of it to recycle it to something else since it’s a crumbly mess).


Some good news: NYC will ban styrofoam starting in 2019. Hooray! I’ve noticed a lot of companies already switched to heavy duty plastic or cardboard for shipping packages and more restaurants are using non-styrofoam containers. (It also helps to consider other takeout restaurants that don’t use styrofoam boxes. I’ve stopped buying eggs packaged in styrofoam and buy eggs packaged in paper containers so I can recycle and have zero waste 🙂 . (It does cost a bit more though, so I buy more eggs when on sale!)

Update (March 2020 – current): due to COVID-19, styrofoam usage will not be fined at this time.

Other fun facts about this center:

  1. A wind turbine powers 2–3% of the energy, enough to power their office
  2. Solar panels power ~17% of the energy used to sort recyclables
  3. Oysters are used at the docks to clean the water near the plant
  4. The area was built intentionally on a hill, keeping in mind the rising water levels

The center has a ton of information and interactive elements to learn more about recycling. It was designed to educate visitors and student tour groups. I definitely need to go back and read all the panels – anyone interested in coming along (to Sunset Park, Brooklyn? 🙂 Adult tours are typically once a month on a Friday at 4pm with the next available slot on Fri, Jan 4, 2019.

Keep learning about this Sims Recycling Center over on YouTube with Sam Silver (GrowNYC) with a closer view of the machinery (you can’t get that close as a visitor). Also check out Belinda’s post about her experience at the center — we were on the same tour! 🙂

Image for post
all it takes is just a second to figure out which bin it belongs in: compost, mixed recycle, trash, or paper recycle? | photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Originally published on Medium:

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