Beginning in summer 2016, the Syracuse University Environmental Finance Center (SU-EFC), in collaboration with the New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse, & Recycling (NYSAR³), coordinated tours of sustainable materials management (SMM) facilities (i.e., facilities centered around waste reduction, reuse, and recycling) in several regions across New York State. Target locations included the Watertown, Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, and Rochester areas, within which operations and facilities dealing with various facets of SMM were identified. These included compost facilities, anaerobic digestion systems, recycling centers, reuse stores, food banks, and more.
In order to illustrate not only the quantity of materials, but also the diversity of material types that are handled via SMM, each regional tour focused on a wide range of materials, such as organics, textiles, and mixed recyclables. It was especially interesting to learn about materials that are not well known to be recyclable (e.g., textiles that are ripped and/or stained).
Audiences from various sectors were invited to participate in the tour series. Participants included representatives from NYSAR³, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), municipal leaders, materials management professionals, college/university sustainability coordinators, regional recycling coordinators, members of the general public, and others.
At each featured location, tour guides provided attendees with a behind-the-scenes view of the facility, and described the advantages and challenges of their particular operation. Through these presentations, attendees not only gleaned the current state of recovery for certain materials, but they also witnessed first-hand some of the barriers to higher recovery rates. Notably, the sharing of information was not unidirectional. Tour group participants were often able to provide facility managers with operational suggestions and professional contacts for dealing with the challenges specific to their facility. Additionally, throughout each tour attendees had the opportunity to share their professional interests and perspectives with other members of the group and to brainstorm solutions to current SMM challenges.
Attendees completed written evaluations after each tour. For future tour locations, participants replied that they’re interested in plastic film recycling, textile fiber recovery, construction and demolition recycling, electronic recycling, and more.
Watertown, NY | August 4th, 2016
The first tour of this series centered on the city of Watertown, NY. In attendance were 14 individuals from organizations including SU-EFC, NYSDEC, NYSAR³, the Development Authority of the North County (DANC), the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA), and others. The tour group visited the following facilities:
The Fort Drum Compost Facility: Here, attendees witnessed how organics waste, generated by approximately 17,000 employees, soldiers, and their families is transformed into a useful organic medium. Materials such as brush, branches, pallets, ammunition boxes, waxed fruit boxes, pre- and postconsumer food waste, and more are ground and mixed together at the site and placed into forced aerated windrows. When completed, the finished compost is used on Fort Drum for applications such as forest soil amendment. In addition to equipment maintenance, weather extremes, and increasing composting literacy on the base, the site mangers displayed how contamination of non-compostable materials (e.g., plastics) in the organics stream causes various problems for composting processes.
The Thousand Islands Area Habitat for Humanity: As part of Habitat for Humanity’s core mission of “building homes, community, and hope”, many chapters operate restores which offer donated building materials at deeply discounted rates to help raise money for the construction of homes. Although the Thousand Islands Area location is humble in size—retaining only one full-time employee—the site exemplified how such an operation can be initialized to help reclaim building materials. Items available in this particular restore included lighting fixtures, doors, cabinets, lumber, tile, bricks, and more. These materials were donated from home renovation projects and by large-scale home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s. If not for this outlet, much of those usable materials would end up in landfills or incinerators.
The Watertown Urban Mission: For almost 50 years The Watertown Urban Mission has managed the Impossible Dream Thrift Store in downtown Watertown. Here, the tour group saw first-hand how this organization manages large volumes of textiles. After receiving a shipment, employees separate the clothing into resalable and non-resalable piles. The wearable clothing is priced and sent to the floor for resale, and the non-resalable items are collected to be sent to textile fiber recycling facilities. And though bags of clothing, shoes, and accessories were piled to the ceiling, the staff stressed that large volumes of recyclable textiles continue to end up in landfills. One primary reason being that members of the generable public are under the misconception that torn and/or stained clothing cannot be donated.
The Jefferson County Transfer Station: With many communities now operating single-stream recycling, this site was an opportunity for the group to survey a transfer station that receives its materials pre-sorted. Advantageously, there is less machinery that needs to be maintained with this arrangement, but conversely the stream quality is ultimately determined by the participating residents. The site manager mentioned that the transfer station may switch to single stream in the future to make sorting simpler for residents thereby increasing recycling participation. Of particular interest to attendees was the large repository of crushed glass located behind the transfer station building. Currently, viable markets for glass recycling are nonexistent and so glass materials are crushed and used as road base.
Albany, NY | August 12th, 2016
The second tour of the series took place in and around the city of Albany, NY, and was attended by 21 individuals representing SU-EFC, NYSDEC, NYSAR³, Empire Zero, Casella Organics, Troy Zero Waste, Otsego County, and others. The following facilities were toured:
County Waste & Recycling Services: This location illustrated the impressive sorting capabilities of materials recovery facilities (MRFs), as well as the challenges posed by contamination of non-recyclable materials such as electrical wires, garden hoses, roping, ammunition, firearms, and more. Attendees were first shown the initial input of mixed plastics, paper, cardboard, metals, and glass. They then walked the course of the facility to see how each recyclable category is separated and ultimately baled as a finished material to be sent to manufacturers. These techniques include star screens, infrared sensors, electromagnets, eddy currents, human-aided quality control, and others. In addition to contaminants, the tour guide explained how MRFs also struggle to succeed financially when certain materials (e.g., glass) have little or no market value.
Radix Ecological Sustainability Center: Set up as a small-scale education center, this location compelled group members to compare and contrast aspects of various composting techniques. These included the feeding of food scraps to goats and chickens, static composting piles, anaerobic digestion, black soldier fly meat composting, vemicomposting, and polystyrene decomposition via meal worms. Notably, this site is a testament to how such processes can be implemented in space-limited urban environments such as downtown Albany. Furthermore, the site demonstrated innovative, secondary services that can be gleaned from composting processes. For example, hosing is coiled in the large static compost piles to absorb the heat given off by the aerobic respiration of microorganisms. The hot water is then used to heat fish rearing tanks during the winter months.
Habitat for Humanity Capital District ReStore: The operational model of the Capital District ReStore is almost identical to the Thousand Islands Area location, only on a much larger scale in terms of staff and the volume and variety of materials. Two large warehouses store used and new materials including furniture, home accessories, appliances, and building materials, which are donated by manufacturers, commercial building companies, malls, schools, the general public, and more. In fact, in 2015 more than 700 tons of building materials alone were prevented from being landfilled, a measurement that doesn’t include all the other materials taken in. The tour guide stressed how quickly their second warehouse filled up when the space was acquired, and he’s confident that enough material is still out there and being generated to fill further warehouses.
Wagner Farms Anaerobic Digestion System: With approximately 400 milking cows, Wagner Farms has large amounts of manure to manage. Through the process of anaerobic digestion (i.e., in absence of oxygen), the manure is collected and loaded into a cylindrical building with a flexible membrane roof. Inside, methane and other gases accumulate and build pressure which forces the roof into a dome shape. The gases are then combusted via an on-site generator that creates electricity for the farm. The leftover solid residuals are further stabilized and used as bedding for the cows. Thus, attendees witnessed how the anaerobic digestion process closes loops within the farm system. Not only does it manage a large waste stream, it helps to control odors and it provides cost savings benefits to the farm in the form of electricity and animal bedding.
Buffalo, NY | August 25th, 2016
The third tour of this series was located in the city of Buffalo, NY. The group consisted of 22 individuals who were representing organizations including the SU-EFC, NYSDEC, NYSAR³, the City of Buffalo, Terra Viva, Walker Environmental, the City of Niagara Falls, Sanfilippo Solutions, and more. Toured locations include:
Quasar Anaerobic Digestion Facility: Like Wagner Farms, this location manages organic materials with anaerobic digestion. However, instead of manure, Quasar is currently commissioning this location to solely handle food scraps. The setup includes a receiving station where food scraps are offloaded into a holding tank. The material is ground up and mixed with water to form a slurry that can be pumped through pipe networks to the other facility chambers. The AD tank, capable of holding 750,000 gallons and outfitted with a flexible membrane roof, collects methane and others gases that are output from the anaerobic digestion processes. Gases are then sent to an engine for combustion and the generation of electricity which is to sold to New York State Energy & Gas (NYSEG). Solid residuals of this process can be further composted and used as beneficial soil amendment.
Buffalo Recycling Enterprises: This facility is a great example of the advanced sorting capabilities of materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Single stream (i.e., commingled) recyclables are fed into the conveyor belt system where types of materials (e.g., plastics, glass, paper, tin, aluminum, etc.) are separated by a myriad of mechanical operations (e.g., star screens, vacuums, electromagnets, forced air, human-aided quality control, etc.). As is true with a majority of MRFs, one of the most prevalent and troublesome contamination materials is plastic films (i.e., plastic bags). The bags and other films get wrapped around the star screens, which is one of the first operations dealing with 2D and 3D separation. Multiple times per day the buildup renders the screens ineffective and the entire operation must be halted. Employees then climb down into the screen area and cut away the plastic films.
ReUse Action: Another testament to how a small, dedicated staff can facilitate impactful diversions of materials, this operation is similar to the Habitat for Humanity ReStores. In addition to receiving donated materials, however, the team also provides green demolition services. In contrast with traditional demolition, where speed is highly valued and a majority of materials are hauled to a landfill, green demolition is an efficient process that allows for the salvaging and reuse of valuable construction and building materials. Materials available at the retail location include extensive selections of barn wood, windows, doors, flooring, tile, cabinets, appliances, furniture, antiques, and much more. In addition to the materials reclamation, the tour guide stressed the importance of their inclusive, community-minded business model that seeks to create jobs with livable wages.
C.J. Krantz Organics: At this large-scale composting facility, the group witnessed how vast volumes of organic material such as leaves, grass, branches, and other “yard waste” are sustainably managed. Composting is a process that unlike anaerobic digestion takes place in the presence of oxygen, which along with the organic materials and water fuel microorganisms that work to transform the material into a valuable soil amendment. To accomplish this, materials are arranged into long rows called windrows, and are then periodically turned with specialty equipment. Turning the materials increases the homogeneity of the mix, ensuring that oxygen and moisture are well distributed and also ensuring that all materials spends time in the middle of the windrow where temperatures are hottest and composting rates are fastest.
Ithaca & Elmira, NY | September 22nd, 2016
The final tour of this series took place partly in Ithaca, NY and partly in Elmira, NY. A total of 14 people attended the event and represented organizations including SU-EFC, NYSAR³, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Ithaca College, Cornell University, Madison County, the Town of Skaneateles, the Town of Seneca Falls, Casella Organics, and more. Locations visited by the group included:
Tompkins County Recycling & Solid Waste Center: This recycling center demonstrated how an innovative, easy-to-use drop-off site can effectively engage the public and increase material recovery rates. For one, there is a $2.40 fee per bag/can of trash. This fee is used to incentivize residential waste reduction and to increase recycling participation. Secondly, recyclable materials are accepted as a single stream, which means that participants do not sort materials themselves. Most notably, this site has a drop-off station for fats, oil, and grease (FOG), and for organic materials, which includes yard waste and food scraps. Lastly, there are additional drop-off stations for materials that are more challenging to recycle such as electronics, scrap metal, textiles, rigid plastics, plastic films, tires, and more.
Ithaca ReUse Center: Similar to the other reuse stores, this location sells reclaimed and donated materials including household goods, furniture, and building materials. Refurbished electronics such as computers, printers, cell phones and more are also available at affordable rates, and are linked to their job training program called ReSET (Skills & Employment Training). The program strives to assist trainees with the development of professional skills and experience through a hands-on learning environment. Relatedly, the center also hosts a Fixers Collective every Saturday where skilled tinkerers volunteer to repair household items brought in by residents, thus saving these items from being prematurely discarded. Similarly to ReUse Action, the center also provides deconstruction services that prevent 70%-90% of a building’s materials from being landfilled.
Food Bank of the Southern Tier: With roughly 40% of food going to waste in the U.S., donation is not only a solution for reducing landfilled organics, but more importantly it’s a way to connect this surplus with the approximately one out of six Americans who do not have steady access to healthy food. This agency works toward these goals by donating millions of pounds of food annually through partner agencies, such as food pantries and soup kitchens, as well as through direct-service distribution such as their BackPack, Kids’ Farmers Market, Food Bank Garden, and Mobile Food Pantry programs. Volunteers help to glean fresh and nutritious produce from local farms that would have otherwise been plowed back into the soil. Challengingly, however, some large donations made throughout the year lack the nutritional content crucial to those in need (e.g., surplus candy).
Rochester, NY | November 17th, 2016
The fifth and final tour of this year’s series was held in the southeastern suburbs of Rochester, NY. A total of 14 individuals were present throughout the day. SU-EFC, Cornell Cooperative Extension, NYSDEC, the Village of Interlaken, the Town of Seneca Falls, Cornerstone Environmental Group, Buffalo Recycling Enterprises, and other organizations were represented. Facilities that the group toured included:
EWASTE+: With increasingly repaid development and turnover of electronic products, this facility provides the essential and specialized function of electronics recycling, thus reducing the loss of valuable materials and resources to landfills. One of the main concerns for organizations looking to recycle retired equipment is the handling of sensitive data, which is why this company has strict procedures in place to protect to the confidential information of its clients. Acceptable items include computers, batteries, scientific equipment, printers, mobile devices, storage devices, and much more. Unacceptable items include smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, toasters, vacuum cleaners, irons, hair dryers, and more. Ultimately, equipment that is in good working condition is refurbished and prepared for resale. The rest is broken down into its base components and sold for recycling.
St. Pauly Textile: The EPA estimates that approximately 85% of clothing in America is landfilled instead of recycled. According to the NYSDEC, that’s approximately 1.4 billion pounds of NYS textiles per year. At this for-profit company, textiles are collected from local drop-off sheds which are hosted by community organizations. The organizations receive payment for the clothing which they can use to support their organization’s missions. Once the textiles are at the facility, the bags are quickly inspected to verify their contents, shoes are sorted into a separate stream, and then the textiles are bailed for distribution. Due to a great need for clothing around the world, the textiles are not only shipped throughout the United States, but also internationally. And, clothing is also supplied locally if there is a need, all for pennies on the pound.
Casella’s Ontario County MRF: Similar to the Albany and Buffalo MRFs, the household recyclables of Ontario County, NY residents are handled via a contract with Casella who manages a local Zero-Sort recycling facility. Here, as with the other MRFs, recyclable materials are received in a single, commingled stream. Materials include paper, cardboard, glass, metal, and plastics #1 through #7. Unacceptable materials include wax coated paper and cardboard, paper towels, drinking glass, scrap metals, plastic bags and other plastic films. The plastic films are especially troublesome because they get caught up in the spinning components of the facility and shut down production multiple times per day. In the end, materials are separated into their original categories, bailed into large cubes, loaded onto trucks, and shipped to manufactures to be made into new products.