Where it goes, how it gets there and what the city is doing to change how we recycle it
Follow the coffee cups journey in a photo slideshow below
The sleek, glassy Bank of America Tower is one of New York City’s tallest buildings, one of its most energy-efficient structures and perhaps the country’s most ecologically friendly skyscraper.
It is also on the cutting edge on a less glamorous front: getting rid of its trash.
The Durst Organization, the powerful real estate company and the developer of the Bank of America Tower, is doing all it can to minimize the building’s waste and keep it out of landfills.
It all starts with the office workers. At Durst’s headquarters on the building’s 49th floor, the trash bins next to each desk are only for paper. None of the receptacles have plastic liners, a reminder to keep out any food or liquids.
Pizza crusts, apple cores and half-eaten bagels have to be carried to a break room, where employees deposit them in wooden compost buckets. Empty water bottles, soda cans and glass go into a separate can. Any remaining garbage is dumped into yet another can.
Lisa Cintron, a Durst quality-control manager, said it was an adjustment to take her trash to the break room instead of throwing everything away right at her desk.
“Since you get up and you’re already there, you say, ‘Well, I might as well do the right thing and throw it in the right place,’ ” she said. “It was definitely inconvenient for people and hard to adjust initially, just the thought, but it really didn’t take much to adjust.”
The on-site sorting, done on all but a couple of floors at the Bank of America Tower and at a number of other Durst buildings, is just the start of the journey for each piece of trash.
Food refuse is shipped to the Durst family’s composting farm two hours north of the city. Paper, cardboard and plastics are shipped overseas to be broken down and remade into new products. Much of the remaining trash is burned in an incinerator. Only a fraction of the garbage is buried underground.
Helena Durst, a Durst vice president spearheading the company’s efforts to minimize trash and maximize recycling, said it’s all about setting an example in a city trying to boost its recycling.
“It’s not a moral thing,” Durst said. “It’s an economic driver, and it’s an imperative for the environment. It’s the government’s imperative to be able to put the infrastructure in place so that we can all easily follow it.”
* * *
Around 5 p.m. on a sunny day in March, the cleaning crews show up at the Bank of America Tower for the evening shift. Ljubica Martic arrives on the 49th floor, still lit by the fading sunlight, to tidy up the upscale corporate offices and cubicles, vacuum the floors and take out the trash.
As a few employees wrap up their work and head for the elevators, Martic steps into a deserted break room with a sweeping view of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the harbor beyond. She scoops up an empty Starbucks coffee cup on a table and drops it into a plastic bag.
“We throw recycled paper here, garbage here, and we always use blue plastic bags in case we find cans or water bottles,” she says, snatching up other bits of trash from the table and dropping them into their designated cans. “Here, it’s more strict.”
She yanks several half-filled bags and lugs them down the hallway to the freight area, where she drops them next to an elevator.
Just before 7 p.m., the elevator doors open, and out steps a young Durst employee sporting a light blue work shirt and a mohawk. He loads the garbage into 55-gallon wheeled tubs, and the elevator descends to the ground floor.
At the loading dock, the bags are tossed from the tubs onto the empty concrete floor. By midnight the dock is filled with hundreds and hundreds of bags.
* * *
New York City generates a mind-boggling 50,000 tons of waste every day, day after day, and sends much of it out of the city on trucks, at a growing cost to the environment, as well as the city’s bottom line.
The Bloomberg administration has taken notice, recently setting a goal of doubling the diversion rate for household waste, a measure for how much trash is kept out of landfills.
To achieve that, the city is relying heavily on recycling, which it plans to increase by expanding what materials can be recycled, opening another recycling facility in Brooklyn and developing better outreach efforts.
“In the plan to double the diversion rate, you’re going from 15 to 30 percent,” said Cas Holloway, the city’s deputy mayor for operations. “Where do those 15 points come from? Basically 10½ or 11½ points will come from an increase in recycling and reuse. And then another key part of this is we need to get New Yorkers to use less.”
But even if the city reaches its goal, it won’t address a much bigger source of garbage. Commercial waste, including paper from office buildings, food waste from restaurants and debris from construction sites, makes up about three-quarters of the city’s trash.
The city has less control over that garbage, leaving it to private companies and private haulers to dispose of it. The commercial recycling rate is around 40 percent, in part because of lucrative markets for used paper, a plentiful resource from the city’s many office buildings, as well as plastics and other materials.
But the city could still do more to boost commercial recycling rates, experts say.
For one thing, the Department of Sanitation has yet to complete a comprehensive survey of how commercial waste is handled in the city. The study has been put off since 2006, when it was called for in the city’s solid-waste management plan.
The City Council passed a law mandating its completion by the start of 2012, but the city missed the deadline, and now expects the study to be done by the end of this summer.
“Probably the most significant thing we know about commercial recycling in New York is there’s a lot that we don’t know,” said Eric Goldstein, the New York environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “How well the businesses are doing across the board in New York, it remains something of a mystery, because we don’t have the data we need to assess and evaluate the program.”
Once the Bloomberg administration gets a clearer idea of where its commercial waste is going—and to what degree businesses and companies are complying with existing regulations—it may want to look at ways it can follow the lead of businesses that are already on the cutting edge of trash recycling, like Durst.
* * *
At 4:14 a.m., a dark blue Royal Waste Services truck rolls up outside the Bank of America Tower to pick up its last load of the night. The truck backs into the building, and two young men in jeans, gloves and yellow fluorescent vests hop out.
They grab bag after bag, heaving them into the mechanical jaws of the truck. They keep at it for nearly an hour, snatching up loose napkins, paper cups and pizza boxes, pausing occasionally to wipe the sweat off their faces.
Shortly after 5 a.m., they hop back in cab of the truck and pull out into the dark, drizzly night. The truck zigzags across Manhattan, over the Queensboro Bridge and into Queens, where it zips along the quiet side streets and bustling freeways until it arrives at its final destination.
Royal’s transfer station in Jamaica, Queens, is a jumble of buildings and trailers surrounded by a high corrugated metal fence. At either end of the station are paved outdoor areas teeming with mountains of trash.
Huge yellow excavators clutch mounds of garbage with mechanical claws, shredding open the bags, spreading out the contents and moving them from one pile to another. With most food waste shipped to another facility, and a quick turnaround time for sorting and shipping out recyclable materials, there’s only a faint odor of garbage.
Some of the piles are kaleidoscopes of plastic—bright orange and purple detergent bottles, empty motor oil bottles, green-tinted soda bottles. Others have thousands of flattened brown cardboard boxes.
The truck pulls into the station and dumps out the trash on the pavement, and a bulldozer pushes the load into one of the industrial buildings. Inside, dozens of low-paid Spanish-speaking workers wade through white paper piled up like snow, picking through the waste for magazines, plastics, anything that doesn’t belong.
Everything else—all the Little Italy pizza boxes, Poland Spring water bottles, printer-paper boxes—is loaded onto a sorting belt. The belt ferries it upward and onto a raised blue and yellow metal platform with a series of conveyer belts. More than a dozen workers, each assigned to pull out a particular material, sort through the waste as it passes by, dropping what they grab into a chute.
The remaining garbage spewed out at the far end will be shipped to an incinerator or to a landfill. But whenever possible, there’s more money to be made by selling the waste.
“We look at finding alternative markets to move that material regardless of what the price of it is,” said Robert Guarnaccia, a vice president at Royal Waste Services. “It’s always better to us than driving two hours out and burying it in a landfill or taking it to a burn center and paying a high price to have that material burned.”
Once the sorting process is complete, a machine crunches the materials together into 1,700-pound cube-shaped bales, about 5′ by 6′ in size. The bales are given an inventory number and put into stacks.
A few days later, once 40 bales of a single material are ready, they’re picked up by forklifts and loaded into a huge metal shipping container to be sent overseas.
* * *
The city’s residential and commercial waste streams operate under such different conditions that lessons from one don’t always apply to the other.
Commercial waste companies like Royal compete to find the best price for their recyclable materials, serving as an incentive to maximize recycling rates. By contrast, the city’s primary task is to keep streets clean and make sure it has a place to reliably deliver its trash.
The city is also limited by the fact that homes, apartments and schools simply generate less trash than huge office buildings, making anything more than a twice-a-week pickup difficult. But there are still lessons the city can learn, Durst said.
“We have all our material in loading docks, and we have a daily pickup, and it’s much cleaner than what we have on the streets,” she said. “Part of the problem for our residential recycling rates is we have street-side pickup.”
Durst suggested the city adopt a system with pickup for dry waste, such as paper and plastics, and separate pickup for wet waste, like food.
It wouldn’t be easy, she acknowledged. The curbside pickup system would have to be changed somehow, since food waste would sit out too long and rot. Composting might have to be required to have enough material to justify sending trucks to fetch it.
“If we had another method—and I don’t know what that method is—but if we could elevate our trash some way, have better ways of labeling what is recycling and what is not, we would probably increase our diversion from landfill rates or our recycling rates,” Durst said.
In the short-term, commercial food composting may be the more likely next step. At least to start with, composting should be required at restaurants and grocery stores, Goldstein said.
“The city ought to be requiring that their food waste, the vast bulk of their waste, be separately collected and composted,” he said. “It makes no sense at all to haul it out of state somewhere to generate global-warming gases when it could be turned into useful compost—and again, save money in the process. It’s a question of changing the corporate culture in a number of these places, and that’s one reason why the Bank of America Tower is an example of the cutting edge of sustainable trash-handling practices in the city.”
Benjamin Miller, an environmental policy consultant and a former director of policy planning for the Department of Sanitation, agreed that commercial composting could help.
But it comes with its own sticky issues, starting with questions surrounding storage space and sanitary requirements in restaurant kitchens and grocery stores, Miller said. Cost is another factor. And while the Dursts have their own composting facility, there are few such facilities near New York City that other companies can use.
“Not to mention that the compost is then driven to the Durst farm and processed there—things that would be an extra expense for anyone else, particularly since the nearest composting facility that receives significant amounts of commercial wastes from New York City is in Delaware,” he said.
The Bloomberg administration will start to look at things like commercial food waste, Deputy Mayor Holloway said, despite its challenges.
“To do it at scale, and really get a hold on this, you have to engage the restaurants and the other commercial businesses that produce a lot of food waste,” Holloway said.
* * *
A few days after the Starbucks cup arrives at the transfer station, it’s loaded into a container with the other bales of mixed paper waste. The truck carrying the container departs the transfer station at 2:59 a.m. on March 16, and about two hours later it arrives at its destination: Port Newark, across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey.
Within another 24 hours the container is loaded onto The Ever Divine, a ship bound for Qingdao, China. It’s a slow, soggy voyage for what’s left of the Starbucks cup.
“China has all the need for that material,” Guarnaccia said. “How much stuff do we import? All the stuff that we import comes back here in boxes. They need that material to make new cardboard boxes, so they can ship us back all those electronics, all the clothing; everything, pretty much.”
About a month later, on April 12, the container reaches land. It’s then loaded onto a truck and driven to one of the seven or eight major paper mills located about a half hour outside of the bustling Chinese port.
At the mill, forklifts unload the bales and put them in storage, where they are left so the raw material can dry out.
A few weeks later, the wires holding the bales together are cut and the material is dumped into 20′-tall mixing vats. Water and chemicals are added, and the material is churned into a pulp, which takes about six to seven hours.
The pulp is dried out on a slow-moving conveyer belt that runs through a low-heat chamber for five or six hours. When it comes out, it’s ready to be packaged as rolls of brown paper or, depending on the thickness, shaped into cardboard boxes.
Three days after the mill starts breaking down the material, the new product is ready to be sold—and more than likely it will be used to ship goods and merchandise back to the United States. Maybe even to New York City.
Tags: Bank of America Tower, Benjamin Miller, brooklyn, Cas Holloway, China, City Council, Delaware, Department of Sanitation, Durst Organization, Empire State Building, Eric Goldstein, Helena Durst, Lisa Cintron, Ljubica Martic, Manhattan, Michael Bloomberg, Natural Resources Defense Council, New York, New York City, Port Newark, Qingdao, Queens, Robert Guarnaccia, Royal Waste Services, solid waste management plan, Starbucks, Statue of Liberty, The Ever Divine
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