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A Love Letter to SIMS Municipal Recycling Facility

SIMS Sunset Park Materials Recovery Facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn

I know that I must not be the only one who, while watching the new season of How To with John Wilson, smiled with glee when John arrived at the SIMS Municipal Recycling Facility in Sunset Park. The smooth-brained satisfaction that comes with seeing machines at work, specifically designed to sort and pull out various materials, is great. But it’s more than that. The recycling facility seems like a bastion of hope in a city that apparently hates to participate.

Did you know NYC’s recycling rate is only about 18%? And that’s about HALF the rate of the national average. That’s a lot of people who don’t recycle. But why is that?

My theory? I think we forget that a lot of New Yorkers won’t tolerate inconvenience. And when you add that to a rather obnoxious habit of the media kicking up the whole ‘recycling is fake and they’re just throwing your stuff in the trash’ theory every few months, you end up with people believing it’s not worth the 10 seconds of rinsing needed to recycle a takeout container. (Speaking of which, have you heard of DeliverZero?)

Climate anxiety manifests itself in a lot of ways. For me, sometimes I get caught up just thinking about every stupid little takeout container in the trash, multiplied by however many meals for however many New Yorkers, every day of every year. And all of those will still be sitting somewhere on the planet, long after you’ve died and probably after humanity has too. Not to mention, to even get that little plastic container to you, we had to harvest oil to make the plastic, craft the container, ship it out to the distributor, get it to restaurants, put food in it and usually have other people drive it to you.

And after all that, it’s not worth their time to dispose of it properly.

I think if people knew more about their local recycling plants they’d believe their actions make a difference. The SIMS facility is amazing! I called this a love letter because I really feel that way. It pushes on in the face of the incredible laziness that plagues this place, unperturbed by our city’s learned helplessness and the fiction that’s easy to accept because it makes life “easier.”

Let me tell you about Brooklyn’s facility. Did you know that it’s the largest and most sophisticated plant for commingled residential recyclables in North America? They process 800 TONS of recyclables a day.

The system follows an insane series of steps to get everything in the right place: after your bag’s contents are dropped in, it goes through a giant magnet to pull up any metal. Then through a line of optical sorting cameras, which can identify plastic categories and send a jet of air to move out *the specific item the camera saw*. Anyway everything gets sorted out, packaged into bales, and then they sell that to producers. SIMS sells recycled glass aggregate, aluminum, tin, glass, and two types of recycled plastic.

Where does all that leave us? What does recycling do as an end product? Lots of people buy tin, aluminum, glass, and PET 1 plastic, but what about everything else?

You might think there’s nothing glamorous about recycled glass aggregate, for example. (Ok, there’s not.) But it’s all around you: in drainage and bedding across all the boroughs, in the fill used in developments, remediation, and raising site grades above FEMA flood elevations. You’d be surprised where else you find it: the garden substrate on Governor’s Island, tree pits, a wetland meadow in the Bronx.

I love our recycling plant. I think you should too.

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