SWAB this!

On Monday, June 7th I had the opportunity to attend the monthly meeting of Brooklyn’s Solid Waste Advisory Board (SWAB) at Borough Hall. When Anne sent me an email asking if I could go, she joked about how it would be more interesting than I think. Of course, she was right!

Sunset Park, Brooklyn (photo by Barry Yanowitz)
Sunset Park, Brooklyn (photo by Barry Yanowitz)

The name “Solid Waste Advisory Board” might evoke images of a room full of important-looking people, conversing in abstract and political language that would be lost on, or irrelevant to, the average New Yorker. At least, that’s what I was half-expecting. What greeted me instead was a room full of interesting and diverse people ranging from a retired science teacher to a graduate student to members of various community groups, talking candidly about issues that affect all Brooklynites. I quickly learned that, although it was a small meeting, the Brooklyn SWAB is a group of and for the people of Brooklyn, open to any and all interested residents. They make recommendations directly to the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, chaired by councilwoman Letitia James, so I really encourage anyone interested in the fate of solid waste in Brooklyn to come to next month’s meeting. I learned a lot and every attendee has the opportunity to voice their opinion and ask questions.

Last Monday, the main subject was the plan to build a new glass/metal/plastic recycling facility at Brooklyn Pier in Sunset Park, a site which is currently an empty paved lot. Tom Outerbridge, the General Manager of Sims municipal recycling entity, came to the meeting to give an informal presentation on the plans of the company, as well as answer the many questions and concerns posed by members of the Board. Sims is working with the Economic Development Corporation, and has a long-term contract with New York City, which also includes existing facilities in Long Island City, the Bronx and Jersey City. He really enlightened me on many aspects of recycling in New York that I had never thought about (and some that I had).  Focusing on efficiency, he stressed that building this facility would reduce the number of miles that recycling trucks would drive by 240,000 per year because currently, most of Brooklyn’s recycling is being driven to Queens for processing.

He also highlighted some unique aspects of the project which include easy pedestrian access to the site, a recycling education center to be used by elementary school classes, and the attempts to hire employees locally within Sunset Park. He also stressed a more general problem, which is contamination and sorting; even deciding what is “recyclable” is tricky, Outerbridge explained to us, because certain types of plastic,  in small enough quantities, have no market and the facility has no place to ship those materials to. He said that if they could collect and sort more substantial amounts of those plastics, then they would be able to sell them to companies who re-process them into usable material. If you’re confused, take comfort in knowing that I am too, and I think it’s fair to say that many of us at the meeting were slightly unsure about what the bottom line is. This highlights one of the most important aspects about recycling, which is the need for more outreach and education on the community level, so that every New Yorker has a clear idea of how to sort their trash and recyclables. And, the more that we all know about the ins and outs of recycling, the more we can make informed opinions and put pressure on the city to improve our recycling infrastructure.

This brings me to the other part of the meeting, which was to discuss a set of eleven new bills which will amend LL 19, the city’s comprehensive residential recycling law. These bills span from expanding the types of plastic to be recycled, to increasing the responsibility of the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, to changing the enforcement and fines associated with improper recycling. Members of SWAB will be attending and testifying at upcoming hearings on the legislation, and the bills are expected to pass at some point this summer. These are meant to make recycling easier for residents, but more action may be necessary. For example, one attendee at the meeting pointed out that the Department of Sanitation has exactly one employee in charge of managing recycling in apartment buildings throughout the city, a tremendous job. Many people at the meeting seemed in agreement that there should be many more people with the same job, since apartment buildings may represent one of the biggest challenges in recycling outreach and education. Apparently, more money will be directed towards outreach in the near future.

Going to this meeting heartened me because it showed me that there are people in all corners of Brooklyn who are interested in informing themselves about solid waste in their city and in doing what they can to advance the cause of reducing our waste stream. It’s up to organizations like ours to educate our community and to come up with creative new ways to complement the actions the Department of Sanitation is already taking.

**If you’re interested in attending future meetings of the Brooklyn Solid Waste Advisory Board, contact Ken Diamondstone at (718) 522-5437 or Nancy Walby at (718) 258 2701.

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