In the latest installment of "How New York City Works," NY1's Roger Clark takes a look at the city's paper recycling program to find out what happens to all that paper after you toss it in the bin.
It takes years to grow a tree, but just a few seconds to cut it down.
To make paper the old fashioned way, you need trees. These days, even as we're all being urged to go paperless, paper products still make up a major chunk of our trash. In an effort to save trees, divert waste from landfills and lessen the overall environmental costs of paper consumption, paper recycling has been mandatory in New York City since 1989.
We all know how it starts, we toss our paper in the recycling bin. What happens next is a team effort between the New York City Department of Sanitation, which once a week picks it all up, and the private companies that give it new life.
Let's find out how it works.
Paper pickups all start with a 6 a.m roll call at one of 59 Sanitation district garages. NY1 visited one on the West side of Manhattan. A few minutes later, the trucks roll. The early start means less traffic and a more efficient operation. We followed a truck to the Upper West Side.
Now with the exception of a major snow storm when sanitation workers focus on snow removal, it doesn't matter what the weather, they're out in it. So George and his partner Anthony are doing the paper pick up in the pouring rain, not their favorite day to do it, but it's got to be done.
And the rain does make things more challenging.
“This is the worst. I'd rather have snow on me than rain on me,” said Sanitation worker George Machado. “It adds weight to your load also. All of this paper is absorbing the water, so it's heavier."
On average, city residents recycle about 15 percent of their paper. As Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia says, there's room for improvement.
"There are some neighborhoods across the city of New York where we have phenomenal diversion rates and there are other districts where we are not doing as well. So we're constantly trying to figure out what partnerships will help us, we do a lot of direct mailing, how to get the message out continuously,” said Garcia.
All of the paper collected in Manhattan winds up at the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station on the Hudson River. Every day more than 50 trucks, packed with up to 10 tons of compressed paper each, make their way in and out. One by one they roll up and dump their collections into barges, to be moved to a private recycling facility on Staten Island.
"Barges are the most eco-friendly way of doing it, no truck traffic, there's no more garbage leaking from the trucks or slipping out of the trucks. The barges are netted, it stays in the barge and it gets down to Staten Island and you off-load it,” said Sanitation Dept. Chief of Collection and Recycling Michael Arney.
It's a two-and-a-half-hour voyage to the Pratt Industries Staten Island Paper Mill. Once the barge arrives, it's unloaded using a massive clamshell bucket. While all of Manhattan's paper comes on the water, saving about 80 truck trips, Pratt receives Sanitation Department trucks from a portion of Brooklyn and all of Staten Island. In all, Pratt gets about 50 percent of the city's paper, several other vendors get the rest.
Roger Clark: So here's the paper that just arrived, but as you're gonna see, we're not all the best recyclers. Check this out. Metal, more metal, plastic. Now we've got to get rid of that if you want to recycle the paper.
An intial screening takes out some of the items that don't belong. A giant claw then moves the paper into a massive pulper machine.
Plant General Manager Muneer Ahmad says it's not as complicated as you'd think.
"It's exactly like your blender but at a lower torque and a lower speed, you put paper in, hot water helps breaks down the fiber easier. Mix it up for ten minutes or so and then we discharge it out of the pulper and it's in the form of pulp,” said Pratt Industries General Manager Muneer Ahmad.
As it's discharged, the mixture passes through screens to sift out anything that isn't paper. The pulp is 95 percent water and is pumped into a large vat. Next, it heads through processes to screen and clean the individual fibers. Once "clean,” the pulp is ready for the paper machine. It's all about getting rid of the water.
There are three sections. The Wet End, where the sheet is formed and large vacuums suck out the water. Then the Press Section, where water is pressed out of the sheet. Then the Dryer Section where 36 driers use steam to remove the remaining moisture. Some starch is added to strengthen the sheet. About 3 hours after our recyclables first entered the pulper, we have a 25 ton jumbo roll of paper.
A crane lifts it to the winder where it's trimmed down to smaller rolls. On average, Pratt produces 1,200 tons of recycled paper per day, that's 400 rolls.
Clark: Wow, you can really get lost in this place. Look at all of this recycled paper. Roll, after roll, after roll. But this isn't the last stop for this paper. It's all going to be transformed into boxes.
While Pratt makes paper for its box plants all around the country, about 10 percent stays here to supply their on-site box plant. So how does a roll of paper become a box?
"You get three rolls of paper that comes from our paper mill next door and we're trying to take a round roll of paper and make it into a flat sheet of combined board,” said Kenneth Dee of Pratt Industries’ corrugating division.
Machines use pressure, heat and a corn based adhesive to meld the three pieces together into what's called "corrugated board.”
The board is cut into sheets which are stacked into piles and eventually brought over to another machine where they'll be printed with custom labels. This machine also adds slots and folds specific to each customer's needs. We now have boxes. From here, they're wrapped up and made ready for delivery. Pratt makes boxes for large companies like Home Depot and Kraft and smaller mom and pop businesses too.
Clark: So here you go. Some of the 4 to 5 million boxes made here each and every week. One million of those boxes are my favorite: pizza boxes.
And what's happening inside this facility, and others like it, has some very real benefits for our environment.
"A ton of paper produced here is saving about 17 to 18 trees, so on an average we're saving about 17 to 18,000 trees a day because we're producing between 1,000 and 1,200 tons of paper here at this facility,” said Ahmad.
And there's more: According to the EPA, it takes 60 percent less energy to make paper from recycled paper than from trees. The process also uses 80 percent less water and generates 95 percent less air pollution. But there are some limitations to the process. The EPA says a paper fiber can be recycled five to seven times before it's too weak to make paper. After that, strengthening enzymes and eventually virgin wood fibers need to be added to the pulp. Another reason to not just recycle, but to limit paper waste in the first place.
So that's how the paper you toss in the recycling bin makes its way back to you.