Talking Trash: A (Waste) Sort Story

The Mission:Re-envision recycling for a hip quick service restaurant chain new to New York City.

The Adventure: In true green style, we hit the road in a Zipcar. Sandwiched between honking yellow taxis, we drove up Park Avenue, from Midtown to the Upper East Side to East Harlem. Upon reaching 125th St. we crossed over, found a major toll way, and soon enough—despite a few wrong turns—pulled up to a recycling facility in the Bronx. Donning florescent yellow vests, we were led to our work site, a dumpster-sized outdoor container where we would conduct the sort. There, one day’s worth of waste from three stores in Manhattan sat in labeled piles, each bag claiming to come from the shop or the kitchen.

First of all, it was a lot of trash. Every bag brimmed with soup, salad, sandwich and sushi packaging, edamame shells, napkins, parfait cups, straws, chip bags, plastic utensils and cardboard boxes to name a few. Our job was to measure the waste stream and develop a recycling system for the restaurant that suited its needs, based on the clientele coming in and the waste stream coming out. We unpacked our scales, buckets, and gloves, and got to work.

At first, it was difficult to find an efficient strategy for sorting through each bag, weighing its components, and documenting the quantity, weights, and types of packaging, not to mention all the food waste. Developing an efficient sorting strategy took some time as there were so many different types of packaging, which made us think that reducing the number of packaging varieties might be one of our recommendations to help make sorting easier.

Soon we noticed that the skies had darkened, so we picked up the pace and dove into each bag, shoveling the trash into buckets and bags, each member of our team of four fully occupied with a two-handed task. Yet no matter our speed, we couldn’t beat the rain. With a light drizzle, we worked on, but when it started to pour, we had to execute a plan to move each pile into the main container, keeping them logically separated so we could return to our work. We ran back and forth, tossing the bags on top of each other and placing makeshift dividers between the layers.

At one point, two of us had to lift a bag together; it was heavy with coffee grounds. The rain streamed down our faces and clothes and our sneakers were completely soaked. By the time we stacked the container with every bag, it hardly seemed useful to cover the pile with the flimsy plastic tarp we brought with us. Despite the wind and the downpour, we managed to cover our data and chain the iron door shut.

When we got into the car, our smell was less than appetizing. The ride home was long. We only had directions to the facility, so the altered routes, poor visibility, flooded roads, heavy truck traffic, and one-way streets took their toll on our ability to navigate home. Nevertheless, after snaking into Queens we made it back to Midtown in one piece. Our quest to green a New York restaurant by implementing a tailored recycling system had only just begun.

The Resolution: With the sun shining and rainclouds nowhere in sight, we returned to the Bronx two days later to finish what we had started. With one team member in meetings all day, three of us were left to complete the task we had set our minds to: a waste audit. We decided to focus on one of the restaurant’s stores, allowing us to collect more precise data. As we dove into our dumpster, creating an assembly line of bag passing, weighing, and sorting, we felt reinvigorated and capable of completing the project. Several hours of sun and sorting later, we had made it through the entirety of eighteen huge bags of garbage and transformed that waste into useful, quantified data to aid our recycling pilot.

Though smelly, sweaty, and a bit sunburned, the three of us stepped back from the sort with a sense of pride and accomplishment, knowing that we would reap the rewards of our work when, in the coming days in the office, we would pour over the numbers we had collected and make recommendations for our restaurant’s recycling, founded on the facts. Stay tuned for the results!

Contributed by: Annie White, Megan Loeb, Paige Costello, and Veronica Clarkson