What actually happens to the stuff you put
in the recycling bin?
I’ve always been curious, so I decided to
collect the recycling from our office and
bring it to a recycling plant to find out.
Follow me – we’re going to find out the life
of our recyclables as they go to a recycling plant.
When I got to Sims recycling plant in Brooklyn,
I found a huge warehouse
where 800 tons of recyclables from all over
are dropped off by barge and truck every day.
The plant was built in 2013 and it is state-of-the-art.
It handles materials like:
metals, glass, and hard plastics.
And after those materials are dropped off,
So we take all of those unsorted recyclables
and we’re pushing it through our processing
system which is almost all automatic.
It’s about two and a half miles worth of conveyor
belts, magnets, cameras all sorts of other machines
dedicated to just sorting out different materials.
The sorting machine is very high-tech
and sorts 14 kinds of materials,
like glass, aluminum, cartons, and different
types of plastic.
Once enough of a material is collected,
it’s compressed into a 1,000 to 1,500 pound
block called a bale.
After the bales are sorted, they’re sold
to 3rd party companies.
For example, a bale of aluminum might sell
Buyers then take the raw material, clean and
and turn it into something new.
This process saves way more energy than mining
for virgin materials.
With the same amount of energy that it takes
to make 1 can of new aluminum, you can make
20 cans from recycled aluminum.
And using one ton of recycled plastic saves
16 barrels of oil.
You have to think about all this stuff as
coming from the earth. Right, there’s natural
resources, oil in all of these plastics, and
once you put it in the trash, it’s going
to a landfill or it’s going to an incinerator,
you’re never going to use that material
So it’s super important we’ve got limited
resources on this planet, to use these kinds
of materials as much as we can in the best
way as possible.
Despite the great set-up at Sims
there are still a lot of issues with recycling.
First of all, Americans kind of suck at it.
According to the EPA, about 75% of all our
waste is actually recyclable.
Yet, our recycling rates hang around 34%,
That basically means that only a third of
every single thing we use and throw out every
day is making it to the recycling bin.
And don’t get me started with New Yorkers.
We only recycle 17% of our waste.
This is a garbage can right outside of our
office and you can see there’s paper
and there’s some cans in there, cups.
All of these thing are recyclable and they’re
in the trash, right when there’s a recycling
bin right next door.
Only about 50% of recyclables in New
York City are getting recycled right now.
And I think that’s largely a result of maybe
a lack of public education.
The fact that the rules have changed over
Maybe some people just don’t care enough or
don’t know why they should care.
And I think all of those kind of issues can
really be addressed through education.
For their part, Sims offers daily educational
tours of their plant, in an effort to boost
our low recycling rates.
Low rates aren’t the only issue though.
Sam also told me about another problem called ‘wish-cycling’.
That’s when people put trash into the recycling bin,
hoping it can be recycled when, in fact,
it can not.
I would say it’s about 10%-13% of what we
get is not something we want to receive.
Those kinds of materials are extra plastic
bags, plastic film, maybe little bits of food
scraps mixed in with those containers.
Wish-cycling wastes a lot of energy and fuel
because items are shipped to a plant like Sims
sorted, and then eventually just sent
to the dump.
I wanted to see if my coworkers and I were
guilty of any wish-cycling
so I convinced Sam to go through our bag with
We’re not wearing gloves because,
is that okay with you?
Yeah, we do this every day, this is fine.
By looking through our bag,
I learned we made some mistakes.
Like putting paper towels in the recycling
They’re actually compostable.
He also told me important tips,
like cutting down on plastic straws.
A lot of sort of single use disposables that
are really small,
it’s better to use less of these then to even
try to recycle them because a lot of small
plastics sort of fall through the cracks in the system.
Sam told me that another huge misconception
about recycling are plastic bags.
We get about 18 tons of plastic bags here
every day, ideally we would be getting nothing.
Plastic bags are a low quality kind of plastic,
which makes them really hard to resell.
For example, in SIMS case, they actually have
to pay another company to to come
to pick up the bags and recycle them elsewhere.
On top of that, the bags get stuck in the
machine and can break it.
So if you want to recycle your plastic shopping
go to a plastic bag drop-off at a retailer
like Whole Foods.
Or better yet, skip the plastic bag all together
and bring a reusable bag.
It’s important to note that every city is
different so look up what your city’s recycling
Sims is one of the most inclusive recycling
plants on the East coast and accepts more
materials than many recycling plants.
But Sam told me to abide by the general rule,
‘If it’s a hard plastic, put it in the
Seeing the 800 tons of recyclables at SIMs
But that’s nothing compared to the 12,000
tons of trash residents of New York City throw
out every day.
I know seeing that made me more conscious
of what I use every day and inspired me to
cut down on single-use plastics.
But let’s be real, plastic is still a part
of our everyday lives
and it’s hard to avoid it completely.
However, I’ve realized we can have a say
in where it ends up,
and while we’re at it, help our environment and create a more