Recycling Plant Reflections


I arrived at the recycling plant approximately one hour before anyone else in the department; I had left early because I thought the transit system might have restrictions due to a fatal derailment that occurred earlier in the day. I was familiar with the region because I had had a job starting a chain of medical clinics throughout Brooklyn, which frequently took me through the region. The plant was tucked on the shoreline between a loading dock where barges bring imported cars from Japan and a naval repair yard where decrepit vessels were being torn down for scrap. In land was a federal prison where, faintly, the distant sound of inmates angrily calling fouls in a basketball game could be heard.

In other words: it was more or less where one would expect a recycling plant to be.

Fortunately, the plant itself was recognizable for the prominent windmill that I had seen featured in many of its marketing materials. I walked by Greenwood Cemetery, past the seedy auto repair shops, between greying prison facilities bereft of a sidewalk, under a highway pass, and finally onto the recycling plant grounds.

The employees, though welcoming, seemed hassled when I asked for instructions to the Educational center where we were to meet. They all wore a distinct uniform jumpsuit and though the grounds featured an employee rec room and even a picnic table and grill outside, few seemed interested in the leisure offered. Eventually, one of them called down a woman from corporate management who apparently was in charge of PR. She was immediately recognizable, not only for her lack of uniform (she wore a highbrow blazer and slacks), but also for her comparatively deliberate stride and meticulous grooming. This was clearly not someone who waded into conveyer belts of trash for a living.

She escorted me upstairs to an children’s exhibit where reductionist versions of the sorting process were replicated in a series of interactive stations. For example, a high pressure air gun allowed children to shoot plastic bottles into pits, just as, I learned, an optical sensor does at the plant. I have spent my fair share of time in industrial facilities and watching behind the scenes industrial making videos like ‘How its Made’, so nothing here was new to me, but I did think the exhibit was well done and educational. I had been to a similar one when I visited the worlds largest open-pit mine, which was drowning in white wash (something I am personally sensitive to), but, aside from a wheel of fortune station which lamely demonstrated how many jobs the recycling plant produced, I felt the exhibit was basically trust-worthy.

I wouldn’t really get to know if it was any good though, until the children arrived.

I sat reading in a small auditorium for about an hour before the next group after me arrived. Once we got up to about 10 students, the real fun began. The exhibit hall became cacophonous with clashing voices, the sound of fake garbage being fake sorted, the various toy mechanisms in full use, the air compressor angrily pressurizing and discharging. They loved it! As a design student, maybe I should have known that our class might be more captivated by a children’s exhibit than the small children it was intended for; so many novel tools that ***teach though using our hands***. How perfect.

Eventually the PR woman ushered us into the presentation theater and pulled up her slides. Interestingly, this was a show she had given to the management of Blue Apron, a home grocery delivery company that had recently been caught in scandal for its chronically wasteful packaging. I honestly was not expecting to learn much, but there were several neat anecdotes which definitely enhanced my knowledge of city infrastructure. I shall relate some of them here:

1The majority of recyclables are delivered to the plant by barge. I had a vague semblance of this, in part because it was a concise of the first Spider Man movie featuring Toby McGuire, in which Spiderman must lower a car from the Roosevelt Island gondola onto a passing recycling barge. But to see is to believe, and we could look out the window and see them before us.

2The output of a recycling plant is extremely crude. I had always assumed that some sort of finished product would come out of the plant, but in fact cubes of loosely sorted and utterly useless refuse emerge from the facility. It is up to the buyers of this bailed trash to process it any further.

3Many substances that are technically recyclable are tossed none the less. Because few uses have been discovered for various types of plastic, glass, and metal have no market, they are basically orphaned in the process. In the past, entrepreneurs have created new markets, but for many substances, it is still slow going. This is surely something that we as designers might be involved with, and it was wonderful to see so many students ask detailed questions on this particular point.

Overall, I was impressed with our presenters awareness and frankness on the flaws in our system. She spoke passionately about a law to restrict the use of plastic bags, and the unseemly forces out to stop it. She spoke fondly of various sustainability practices currently in use in Europe and elsewhere. And she spoke disparagingly of Blue Apron, who she starkly demonstrated had not lived up the commitments to sustainability it made in the midst of its scandal.

After a brief Question and Answer session, we were escorted to an area where we were able view much of the workings of the plant. It was kind of incredible to think that those machines are running 24/7, moving tons of materials every minute, non-stop, and thats just a slim faction of the waste created in the city. We looked down at the labyrinthian apparatus and tried to follow the path the river of garbage was taking. I was particularly interested in the human element of the machine; periodically a conveyer belt would pass a row of humans who would hand sort unwanted objects… For hours on end. I was reminded of readings in other classes that compare the difference between the industrial age and the artisan age as an inverting of the dominant relationship between man and machine. It was sad.

I left the plant a little bit pessimistic about the challenges of sustainability. It was clear that, even if the city adopted best practices around recycling, so much waste and destruction ensues from the reclamation process that it can hardly be called sustainable. Glass waste is often used to top land fills, tons of recyclable products slip through the cracks of the system and end up in landfills anyway. Yet the gears keep turning. The sustainable society of the future has big challenges coming its way, and we certainly have a lot to answer for.

As designers, we can respond to these facts really in just one way; design to help people consume less and create less waste. We cannot allow people to have a false sense of sustainable security just because they recycle. The problem is so much bigger than that. We owe it to ourselves to fully understand how the process works; yes glass is recyclable, but it is almost always ‘down cycled’ for unsustainable use. Yes plastic is bad, but it is the most easily reprocessed. Yes it is good to make small containers out of sustainable materials, but they will likely be sorted out for size and end up in a landfill none the less.

For sustainability to be truly integrated, we must fearlessly embrace this rabbit hole.

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