The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

noxious mysteries

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It’s National Cotton Candy Day, in these United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

So, before all of that bridge business last week, I was telling y’all about heading over to Sunset Park to see something extraordinary. It was a strange and intricate journey getting from “Point A” in Astoria, Queens to “Point R” in Red Hook, Brooklyn. A medium sized walk then carried me under and through the “House of Moses,” on my way south to Sunset Park.

What caused one such as myself to cross the western tip of a Long Island? Garbage, of course. In this specific case, however, it was recycling and I was going to the Sims Metal Management facility found on Gowanus Bay.


Sims Metal Management is the processor of all plastic, metal, and glass collected by the Department of Sanitation and the City selected Sims to be the operator of the new city-owned recycling facility. With a $48-million investment from the City and a $46-million investment from Sims, the new facility, designed by Selldorf Architects, created approximately 80 to 85 permanent jobs. The facility was built embracing sustainable design elements, including green roofs, renewable energy generation, and on-site storm water treatment among others. In July 2010, the recycling facility won an Award for Excellence in Design from the Public Design Commission. Construction commenced in October 2010 and will be completed by December 2012. Operations commenced in 2013.

The Sims Municipal Recycling Facility is a joint project of the Department of Sanitation, the Department of Small Business Services, NYCEDC, and Sims Metal Management.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As always, when a conflict of interest occurs for a humble narrator he puts it right out there front and center – the fellow who manages this recycling operation at Sims Metal is named Tom Outerbridge. Tom is one of my board members at Newtown Creek Alliance, and a friend, so there you go. Tom had allowed me to visit and photograph the company’s operations at Newtown Creek back in 2013, as you may recall – as detailed in the posts “carefully sheltered,” “stealthy attendants,” “temperamentally unfitted,” and “untold number.” Also, before you ask, yes – Tom is the grandson of Eugenius Outerbridge, first chair of the Port Authority for whom the Outerbridge Crossing bridge is named.

Breaking things down to operational basics, the Newtown Creek operation (Sims also has facilities in the Bronx and New Jersey) is about collection and transport, whereas the Sunset Park facility handles both collection and processing.


Sims Municipal Recycling (SMR) is a division of the North America Metals business unit of Sims Metal Management Limited (Sims). SMR is dedicated to meeting the recycling needs of the municipal sector. SMR has a 20 year contract (with two 10-year extensions) with the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) to provide processing and marketing services for 100% of the metal, glass and plastic and approximately 50% of the paper collected in the largest curbside program in North America. SMR also services a portion of the Chicago curbside program. SMR leverages its experience and resources and the resources of its parent company, Sims, to make curbside recycling efficient and effective.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

What you’re looking at are DSNY (Department of Sanitation) recyclable collection trucks unloading at the Sunset Park facility. This is the clear and blue bag stuff – the metal, glass, plastic, and paper we all seperate out from the black bag or putrescent garbage. If it’s coming in by truck, the group I was touring the Sunset Park facility with were told by the Sims personnel, it’s likely coming directly from the collection route in Brooklyn. A few photos down, you’ll see a barge being unloaded, and that’s how they ship the stuff in from the other boroughs.


New York City recycles a wide variety of waste, but some materials are more likely to be recycled than others. The city has three solid waste streams: refuse, paper recycling, and metal/glass/plastic recycling. Overall, about 44 percent of recyclable material is “captured” by city recycling programs with the remainder sent to landfills, according to data from the Department of Sanitation’s 2013 Residential Waste Characterization Study. But a lot of recyclables are thrown in the wrong bins—aluminum cans, for example, tossed in with regular trash. As a result, the capture rate for each of the recyclable materials varies widely, from as low as 5 percent to as high as 75 percent. Material that ends up in the refuse stream or the wrong recycling stream is not recycled. In fact, such “contamination” makes recycling more expensive.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

While I was watching from a catwalk set up above the shop floor, DSNY trucks kept on turning up. These are called “packer trucks” incidentally. There’s an orange “bulldozer” sort of machine that will come through after the DSNY trucks disgorge which sweeps all this material into the processing side of the operation (seen in tomorrow’s post).

from wikipedia

The New York City Department of Sanitation is the largest sanitation department in the world, with 7,201 uniformed sanitation workers and supervisors, 2,041 civilian workers, 2,230 general collection trucks, 275 specialized collection trucks, 450 street sweepers, 365 salt and sand spreaders, 298 front end loaders, and 2,360 support vehicles. It handles over 12,000 tons of residential and institutional refuse and recyclables a day. It has a uniformed force of unionized sanitation workers (Local 831 USA of the Teamsters). Its regulations are compiled in Title 16 of the New York City Rules.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Everybody back in Astoria had one question, when I told them about my visit to this spot, and it involved odor. It certainly didn’t smell like a freshly mowed lawn, but given the tonnage of garbage present, it was actually surprising how well the odor had been managed. I asked one of the hard hats about odor control, and she indicated that whereas there were indeed mechanical “scrubbers” simple ventilation and convection was doing most of the work.

The facility is at the water’s edge of Gowanus Bay, which provides for significant air flow and mixing. On the landward side, it’s an industrial park, so there aren’t too many residences to affect.

from wikipedia

Sims Metal Management also recycles post-consumer materials through a 20-year recycling contract with the New York City Department of Sanitation, which became effective in January 2009. Under this contract, the company is responsible for all curb-side recycling material, including all plastic, glass and metal on behalf of the City of New York. Packer trucks owned and operated by New York City deliver recyclables as a 26 commingled product to the company’s facilities. The commingled product then is processed using a series of screens, magnets, eddy currents, optical sorters and conveyors. The recyclables are separated and sorted into ferrous and non-ferrous metals, different plastic resins, glass and residue. Then the recycled materials are shipped to US and non-US markets.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That claw thingamabob is a “materials handler” and its operator was busy unloading a barge. Given the particular calendrical date my visit occurred upon, that’s actually Queensican recyclables being unloaded, which means that my own contribution to our municipal mess was somewhere in that 3-4 story high pile.

from wikipedia

A landfill site (also known as a tip, dump, rubbish dump, garbage dump or dumping ground and historically as a midden) is a site for the disposal of waste materials by burial and the oldest form of waste treatment (although the burial part is modern; historically, refuse was just left in piles or thrown into pits). Historically, landfills have been the most common method of organized waste disposal and remain so in many places around the world.

Some landfills are also used for waste management purposes, such as the temporary storage, consolidation and transfer, or processing of waste material (sorting, treatment, or recycling). Unless they are stabilized, these areas may experience severe shaking or soil liquefaction of the ground during a large earthquake.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The materials handler operator displayed a bit of finesse in the building of this mountain of refuse, using a bit of what a pool player would call “english” to deposit the thousands of plastic bags of garbage onto the mound.

from wikipedia

The municipal solid waste industry has four components: recycling, composting, disposal, and waste-to-energy via incineration. There is no single approach that can be applied to the management of all waste streams, therefore the Environmental Protection Agency, federal agency of the United States of America, developed a hierarchy ranking strategy for municipal solid waste. The Waste Management Hierarchy is made up of four levels ordered from most preferred to least preferred methods based on their environmental soundness: Source reduction and reuse; recycling or composting; energy recovery; treatment and disposal.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The amazing part of the operation was actually in the highly automated sorting process which happens in another section of the building, and which will be described in tomorrow’s post. My pals in the carting business always tell me that it’s about tonnages, btw. How much in, how much out. They also remind me that it “has to go somewhere.”

The point of what DSNY and Sims Metal are doing is keeping that “somewhere” from being a landfill.

On a side note, it seems that “Dumpster” and “Packer” aren’t descriptive terms for the garbage trucks and waste receptacles we’ve inherited from the past, rather they’re brand names.

from wikipedia

In 1937, George Dempster invented the Dempster-Dumpster system in which wheeled waste containers were mechanically tipped into the truck. His containers were known as Dumpsters, which led to the word dumpster entering the language.

In 1938, the Garwood Load Packer revolutionized the industry when the notion of including a compactor in the truck was implemented. The first primitive compactor could double a truck’s capacity. This was made possible by use of a hydraulic press which compacted the contents of the truck periodically.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s what the Sims Metal facility in Sunset Park looks like from the water. The operational section is under that tilted roof, with the rectangular section on the far left used as offices and visitor center.

On the right is the berth which the barges are moved into, and on the left is the transfer floor shown in today’s post.

As mentioned, tomorrow, you’ll see the separation and processing room at this – your Newtown Pentacle.

Upcoming Tours and events

The Insalubrious Valley of the Newtown Creek Walking Tour, with Newtown Creek Alliance – Saturday August 5th, 11 a.m. – 1;30 p.m.

Century old movable bridges, the remains of a 19th century highway between Brooklyn and Queens, and explore two of the lesser known tributaries of the troubled Newtown Creek watershed. For the vulgarly curious, Conrad Wissell’s Dead Animal and Night Soil wharf will be seen and described, with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman details here.

Brooklyn Waterfront Boat Tour, with Working Harbor Committee – Saturday August 12th, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Explore the coastline of Brooklyn from Newtown Creek to Sunset Park, with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman, Andrew Gustafson of Turnstile Tours, and Gordon Cooper of Working Harbor Committee on the narrating about Brooklyn’s industrial past and rapidly changing present. details here.

The Poison Cauldron of the Newtown Creek Walking Tour, with Newtown Creek Alliance – Sunday August 13th, 11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Explore the hellish waste transfer and petroleum districts of North Brooklyn on this daring walk towards the doomed Kosciuszko Bridge, with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman details here.

Two Newtown Creek Boat Tours, with Newtown Creek Alliance and Open House NY – Wednesday August 16th, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The neighborhoods surrounding Newtown Creek are home to the densest collection of these garbage facilities anywhere in the city and collectively, the waste transfer stations around and along Newtown Creek handle almost 40% of the waste that moves through New York. Join Newtown Creek Alliance’s Mitch Waxman and Willis Elkins  to learn about the ongoing efforts to address the environmental burden that this “clustering” has caused. details here.

DUPBO Newtown Creek Walking Tour, with NYCH20 – Thursday August 24th, 7 p.m. – 9 p.m.

Explore Greenpoint and Hunters Point, with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman details here.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 31, 2017 at 11:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. beautiful opening shot of the trucks in bays

    Kathleen Hulser

    July 31, 2017 at 11:32 am

  2. […] got to visit the operation in Sunset Park last summer, and did two posts about it – “Noxious Mysteries” and “Unusually Worried“. The latter one details the actual process of sorting […]

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