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NY1's Roger Clark takes an in-depth look at the inner workings of New York City in this special series.

How NYC Works: Big Apple Recycling Centers Are Crushing it

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In the latest installment of "How New York City Works," NY1's Roger Clark goes behind the scenes of the city's recycling program to find out what's next for all that metal, glass and plastic you toss in the bin.

On your next trip to the grocery store, there's a good chance you'll end up with a cart full of metal, glass and plastic containers, most of which are meant to be used once and discarded. And we go through a lot. The average New York household discards almost 500 pounds of metal, glass and plastic a year. Plastic alone counts for about 300 pounds. 

These containers are made from petroleum and natural gas, which uses a lot of energy and depletes natural resources. Finding ways to use this plastic again means less has to be made from scratch and less winds up in landfills, big pluses for the environment. So how do our metal, glass and plastics get recycled? Let's find out how it works.  
 
New York City has the largest municipal recycling program in the nation. We drop our used items on the curb and Department of Sanitation trucks pick them up, about 800 tons a day. Next, they're delivered to a company called SIMS, which has a long-term contract to process all of the city's metal, glass and plastic. At a SIMS yard in the Bronx, trucks from northern Manhattan and the Bronx roll up and unload.
 
One hundred and fifty Department of Sanitation trucks visit here six days a week, so it doesn't take long for a mountain of recyclables to grow. But don't call this stuff garbage. It's valuable. The goal is for all of it to be re-used.
 
"Waste is a resource. So there's value in metal. There's value in plastic," says Kathryn Garcia, commissioner of the Department of Sanitation. "All of that can be used to make new products and not end up in a landfill."

SIMS uses barges to move everything to their state-of-the-art sorting facility in Sunset Park. When our recyclables arrive in Brooklyn, they're off-loaded, then pushed onto a conveyor and passed through a machine, aptly called the Liberator, that rips open bags to expose what's inside.

From here, it's off to the sorting floor, a maze of moving belts and machines that separate out materials, one by one. First, everything's bounced over a screen to break, then filter out glass. A gigantic magnet grabs ferrous metals, like steel and iron. Non-magnetic items continue on. A special machine filters out plastic bags. Other plastics and aluminum keep going.

Next, machines eject plastics by resin type. Ever notice those numbers on the bottom of your bottle? That's a resin code. 
 
There are hundreds of resins out there, but to keep things simple, the plastics industry created identification groups. They go from 1 to 7, but types 1 and 2 are the big ones for recyclers. Number 1 is polyethylene terephtalate, known as PET, That's your water and soda bottles. Number 2 is a thicker kind of plastic called high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, your more rigid milk jugs and laundry detergent containers.

Since each plastic type must be recycled separately, SIMS uses optical sorters to distinguish what's what. As items pass through, the sorter takes a picture using infrared light and determines the chemical composition of the resin.

"It's identifying the plastics," says Tom Outerbridge, general manager of SIMS. "You can program this for whatever you want. In this case, we're programming it for Number 1 PET plastic. It is looking for that. It's ignoring everything else. There's a bar of air jets down there that once it sees that PET bottle, it's ejecting it onto a different conveyor belt."
 
What's left moves on to the next sorter, which targets another resin type, and so on through the system. For the HDPE Number 2 plastics, things get sorted even further, into clear and colored batches. Last but not least, one final machine detects and ejects aluminum. While most of the process is automated, workers sift out the odd misplaced item.

By the end of the line, we have massive bins each filled with distinct materials. They're emptied, moved to a baler, compressed and taken to a storage area. 
 
This bale of aluminum weighs 2,000 pounds. It's just one of the end products of this sorting process. And they are products. They are commodities, and there is a market for these valuable materials. They will be sold and have a new life.

Metals can be smelted and used once again. Glass can become a bottle or gravel for civil construction. The inside lining of some drink cartons can be put to an even more personal use.
 
Clark: So there's a possibility the next time I use toilet paper, that it was a milk carton?
Outerbridge: It was your milk carton.
Clark: Get out. No way.

SIMS sells these commodities to customers all over the country. We checked out what's next for those milk jugs.
  
It's road trip time for our crew. We're headed to the Graham Packaging Company Recycling Center. It's in York, Pennsylvania, about three hours from New York City. 

Inside, the jugs arrive from New York. They're broken down and get one more quick manual screen in case SIMS missed something. Next, the bottles are ground into flakes and sent into a float-sink tank. HDPE plastics rise to the top. Contaminants, like paper labels, sink. The flakes are skimmed off, melted into a molten mass, then cut into uniform pellets. The pellets are dried and dropped into boxes.

Graham doesn't just make pellets. They also have manufacturing plants around the world. We visited one just across the street, where these pellets will be used to make bottles.

"We make roughly about 500,000 bottles a day," says Nick Santamaria, plant manager with Graham Packing. "Bottles that have that post-consumer recyclables. Roughly about 15 million bottles a month at this plant."

Each new bottle consists of up to 25 percent recycled pellets. So you take those milk jug pellets, blend them with brand new, or virgin, pellets, throw some color in and heat it all up to form a molten tube of plastic, which then heads into a machine that actually forms the bottle.

"The molds close onto it, and then there's various pins and needles that blow air into it so it expands the bottles, and then it does a revolution across to form the bottle, and then it drops it down on our conveyor here," Santamaria says.

You probably recognize a bottle by its color and labeling. Those labels get checked for alignment, and the bottles get tested for leaks. Then, it's a winding trip through the facility to get boxed up and shipped out to clients so they can be filled and capped. In about two weeks from this point, detergent bottles will be sitting on your supermarket shelves. 

So there you have it. From your bin to a bottle. The biggest challenge in all of this is getting New Yorkers to recycle in the first place. To make things easier, in April 2013, the city greatly expanded the items we can toss in the bin, adding things like deli and yogurt containers. And there's more than just the environmental benefits. The more we recycle, the better it is for the city's bottom line. It's cheaper to pay SIMS to take our recyclables than to pay for space in a landfill.

So that's what happens to the items you put in the recycling bin, and that's how New York City works.

Are you fascinated by something involving the inner workings of NYC?
Drop us a line at HowNYCWorks@ny1.com.


HOW NYC WORKS
Producers: Davide Cannaviccio and Jessica Steiner
Editor: Dan Komarinetz
Director of Photography: Davide Cannaviccio
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