By Allie Molinaro, Think Zero LLC
This September, TZLLC visited the Scholes Street Recycling Center in Brooklyn, NY to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing the recycling industry and how they can be solved. The facility, which opened in the 1990s, is responsible for sorting, baling, and shipping its client's recyclables (all commercial businesses) from New York City to mills throughout the world. We spoke with Head of Resource Management and Business Development Adam Mitchell and his colleagues Paul and Michael to learn more.
TZ: What trends have you seen currently within the industry? What concerns or challenges have you seen?
SSR: Locally there has been more consolidation in the hauling side of our industry in the last year, and disposal costs increased more in the last 6 months than we’ve seen in a while. The recent heightened enforcement of federal trucking regulations governing long haul truckers’ hours of service has also reduced the supply of available truckers to come to our facility.
TZ: What are the top items you see come into your facility that are not actually recyclable?
SSR: Food waste, flexible plastic packaging, and waxed cardboard.
TZ: Which items that are not recyclable are most disruptive to your recycling operations (if any) and what problems do they cause?
SSR: Glass containers are the most disruptive. As glass is collected in the truck and transported, it breaks into sharp pieces. These broken shards become embedded in cardboard as the cardboard and MPC streams are commingled, which decreases the value of the cardboard and in some cases renders it not viable at all. Waxed cardboard can also be a challenge to sort as it looks like a regular box.
TZ: What happens to bags of recycling that are too contaminated? I've always heard that if there are lots of non-recyclables in a bag, the entire bag gets thrown out. Is this true?
SSR: If it hasn’t broken open in the truck already, a bag that is dripping with food or juice would get pulled out and treated as trash.
TZ: What is your average contamination rate? Have contamination rates increased or decreased since switching to single stream and over the years in general?
SSR: Our average contamination rate is 15%, meaning that 15% of what we receive are items that are either not recyclable or become tainted during collection. Single stream creates more contamination, so we have seen an increase since switching over. It’s a tradeoff because while single stream decreases the quality of materials, it increases the trucking efficiency for our hauling division.
TZ: Who do you send the materials to after they are sorted? Where are they located?
SSR: We send plastics and containers to Sims Recycling in Brooklyn and we’ve sold some of our plastic film to Trex in Virginia. The other materials are sold through brokers who sell to a variety of export markets including southeast Asia, Indonesia, and India.
TZ: How many times can plastic and paper be recycled before it must be landfilled or incinerated?
SSR: Plastic is usually down-cycled, meaning it’s remanufactured once. Paper fibers grow too short to be recycled again after around 6 times.
TZ: What end products are your recycled materials used to make?
SSR: Most of our materials are used to make fiber board and new metal containers. The plastic film we send to Trex is used to make composite decking. The plastic we send to Sims can be used to make carpeting, clothing, piping, bottles, etc.
TZ: What policy changes need to occur to support the recycling business?
SSR: That’s a big question. Mandating recycled content is one big step, it’s been tried before in many different ways. Maybe the Canadian model of producer responsibility would be something to look at. Canada’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy mandates that a producer’s responsibility for a product—physical and/or financial—is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle. This shifts responsibility upstream in the product life cycle to the producer and away from municipalities and taxpayers.
TZ: How has China's National Sword Policy impacted your recycling center?
SSR: The Green Sword had a huge impact on the domestic value of a wide variety of recyclables. Combined with Trump’s trade war, which resulted in the Chinese instituting import tariffs on scrap material, there has been a lot of pain in the US recycling industry. The BIC’s 10% increase in the maximum rates haulers can charge reflects the realities of these increased operating costs.
TZ: Would you provide a brief overview of the economic model of the MRF business?
SSR: Buy something for $0.01 sort it, process it, and sell it for $0.04. It’s really is that simple.
TZ: What are the unique challenges of running a MRF in Brooklyn?
SSR: Our space is challenging. Domestic mills are reluctant to truck out of Brooklyn because of the transportation costs. As mentioned earlier, federal trucking regulations have also become a challenge because many truckers cannot get here without going over their hour limits. Another challenge is that the disposal facilities (landfills and incinerators) closest to urban areas like New York City use up their daily tonnage faster, allowing them to raise prices and thus increasing our operation costs. But East Brooklyn is also the geographic center of Manhattan/Queens and Brooklyn, which makes it an ideal location for collecting materials from across the city all in one place.
A group of Think Zero LLC team members with members of the Scholes Street Recycling Center team
In the US, 40% of food is wasted, while 1 in 7 is food insecure. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC) is a food rescue non-profit based in NYC that addresses both issues.
Think Zero LLC interviewed Clara Son, Partner Outreach Associate at RLC, about how and why corporations can help fight food waste and hunger.
What is RLC's mission?
We aim to become the world’s most widely used solution for companies to eliminate food waste in their communities, making food rescue sustainable and universal, and hunger a thing of the past.
How does the donation process work?
RLC will arrange for our volunteers to pick up excess food from licensed food vendors on a regular, scheduled basis. There is no minimum pound requirement for a pickup, and we can come by at the time most convenient for the donating organization. We're available any day of the week, any time from 8am - 10pm. The food for donation should be packaged in food safe, tightly sealed containers by the donor by the scheduled pickup time. Each month RLC will send the donor an impact report that summarizes how many pounds were donated, and where the donation was delivered to.
Note that the donations must be scheduled in advance; we are not able to accommodate day-of requests for food donation pickups. Because of our volunteer-powered model, this does not give us enough time to source a volunteer to pick up the donation.
For corporations, what are the costs and benefits of donating leftover food?
-Support food insecure members of the local community by providing meals with your donation
-Reduce methane gas (which is 30 times worse than CO2) that results from food waste rotting in landfills
-Eliminate the waste of the land, water, and energy used to produce and transport uneaten food
-Enhanced tax savings through IRC Section 170(e)(3) (RLC can assist you with generating proper documentation for your accountant)
-Manage your food waste with data sent to you monthly from RLC, with food donation amounts broken down by date
Reduce your disposal costs
-Increase customer loyalty through your brand's association with food rescue as a social impact initiative
-Advertise your food rescue partnership and location across RLC's 40,000+ volunteers, partner network members, newsletter subscribers, social media followers and supporters
-Become a media partner highlighted on local, regional, and national TV and print media
There is a fee for pickups to cover RLC’s administrative and operational costs. This fee for services will be offset by the money saved in enhanced tax deductions
How do you combat potential legal liability?
There are no recorded lawsuits related to food donation, and there are a number of federal laws that protect donors from legal liability.
The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 is a Federal Law that protects all food donors from both Civil and Criminal liability when donating “apparently wholesome” food to non-profit organizations in “good faith” (with no malicious intent). The Food Donation Act of 2017 clarifies and expands food donation under the Emerson Act.
For an additional layer of protection, RLC also provides a hold harmless clause in agreements with our food donors for any potential losses incurred in connection with food donation. RLC's food donation processes ensure that safe food handling and transportation meet established standards.
Who are some of your corporate and restaurant partners that donate their leftover food?
RLC works with 105 donating partners in 16 cities across the US on a recurring basis. In NYC, we receive food donations from major corporations including LinkedIN, Venmo, Warby Parker, Flow Traders, Moda Operandi, and Digital Ocean. We also receive food donations from restaurants, bakeries, and schools including Dig Inn and Breads Bakery. Visit our website to see more of our partners.
Where is the food donated?
RLC donates to a wide range of human services organizations. In addition to food pantries, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, we deliver to family support centers, runaway youth programs, senior centers, LGBTQ resource centers, and women's shelters, among others. We are actively working with 61 recipient locations in NYC, some of the largest being NY Rescue Mission, The Bowery Mission, and The BRC.
What types of food can you donate?
Prepared food that hasn't been served or plated, self-serve items from a buffet, fresh produce, meat (fresh, chilled, or frozen), dairy products, and unopened containers of food free of damage.
Can you define how small is okay to donate? i.e. a weekly team breakfast that usually has five leftover bagels - is that worthy of a scheduled donation?
As mentioned, RLC does not have a minimum requirement for food donations with our service. We routinely pick up from bakeries where the donation is a few pastries or sandwiches per pickup. If this amount is worth it to the business owner to set up a food rescue partnership, then RLC will pick it up.
How can a corporation sign up?
Corporations can sign up by contacting RLC's Partner Outreach team - email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up donations.