New Facility Sets a High Bar for Construction Recycling in NYC

Last Thursday, November 16, attendees arrived at the Cooper Recycling facility in Bushwick and strapped on hard hats, safety glasses and respirator masks. They followed Naomi Cooper, Vice President of the operation, through a mile-long maze of conveyer belts, screens, grinders, magnets, and sorters. The third event in Urban Green’s Managing Construction Waste series, the Cooper Recycling Tour provided an inside look at the new facility, which handles 2,000 tons of the city’s construction and demolition waste.

Here’s what it looks like: Trucks queue up at the facility’s scale house to be weighed before depositing their loads in the yard out back. Next, large cranes excavate the piles, removing non-recyclable materials such as mattresses and carpet, as well as pieces of metal that are too big for the system to handle, before shoveling the remaining material onto a conveyer belt. From there, the material heads toward a screening system that divides it by size into three new streams. (Anything greater than 12 inches is sent to a shredder and gets ground up until it’s small enough to re-enter the system.) Next, density separators vibrate the material so that lighter objects fly up, where a horizontal blast of air blows these bits over a barrier and into a new stream. The final stage is a series of optical sorters and hand-picked sorting lines, where materials are separated by type into stone, wood and plastic film/paper. From there, clean recyclables are baled up and sold.

MANAGING CONSTRUCTION WASTE IN NYC

Cooper Recycling is New York City’s largest construction and demolition (C&D) recycler. The facility opened just a few months ago, so the machinery isn’t fully calibrated yet. While they currently report a 12-month recycling rate of 75 percent,1  when they do reach full capacity, Cooper is engineered to recycle up to 95 percent of incoming material to a beneficial end use. Materials that can be recycled by Cooper include wood, metal, paper, plastic, concrete and brick. 

Even though the vast majority of construction waste is recyclable, the overall recycling rate for C&D waste in NYC is only 42 percent. Cooper is raising the bar and, through outreach and transparency, encouraging other facilities to step up and help the city achieve its vision of zero waste by 2030.

In addition to the tour, Cooper gave a presentation highlighting several ways the green building community can help NYC reach this goal:

  1. Include a recycling plan in construction and demolition contracts, and specify that haulers need to bring waste to a verified facility.
  2. Help develop local end markets by approving the use of recycled materials for road base and other innovations. As recycling becomes more economically attractive, participation will increase.
  3. Support stable regulatory environments and incentives for investment in new equipment and technology.

RECYCLING CERTIFICATION

Cooper’s facility is an impressive sight to behold. In addition to using state-of-the-art equipment and spearheading C&D recycling in NYC, they’re doing something else that’s pretty rare: the company has opened itself up to third-party auditing by the Recycling Certification Institute (RCI). Cooper hopes that this move toward transparency will become an upward trend in the industry as a whole. Stephen Bantillo, the Executive Director of RCI, spoke to the group about the auditing process.

An RCI assessment allows evaluators to look at everything from how often a facility recalibrates its scales to checking the math on all of its data and verifying that end sales match up with what’s been reported. Bantillo has seen errors across the board; for example, a company might intend to recycle a certain material, but ultimately not find a market for it and send it to an incinerator. Third-party verification confirms that such material does not still get counted as “recycled” in the data. The process also ensures that companies have controls in place to maintain the integrity of the data over time. Bantillo stressed that RCI’s process is agnostic about recycling rates. Companies are not penalized for how much they recycle; certification simply holds them accountable for what they report.

The Construction and Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA) created RCI to assure building owners and architects that materials are being recycled correctly and give credit to facilities with good data. CDRA saw that some facilities were putting in the money and work to do very accurate reporting, but they were often undercut by others who, whether intentionally or not, were reporting inaccurate numbers.

While RCI has had a slow beginning since it launched in 2013, the industry is starting to rely more heavily on certification. Earlier this year, as some Urban Green members may know, the US Green Building Council approved MRpc87, a new point in the LEED Pilot Credit Library for recycling construction waste at facilities certified with third-party verification of their recycling rates. Cooper Recycling is currently the only RCI-certified facility in NYC, but their hope is that other facilities will soon follow.

Certification programs like RCI will become increasingly important as governments grapple with challenges of accountability in their movement to reach zero waste.


1. One major question in the world of C&D recycling surrounds the use of “alternative daily cover,” or ADC. This is ground up material that is used as a daily “cap” on landfills, as an alternative to soil cover. The current 12-month recycling rate at Cooper Recycling, if you include ADC, is 75.12 percent. Without ADC, the rate is 38.72 percent. The material is certainly being put to use, but whether it is truly being recycled is a question reverberating through the industry up to the state-level. While New York State claims that ADC is not included in its recycling rate, we cannot be sure that the facilities reflected in the state-wide statistic are making the same distinction.

About the author

Emily Pontecorvo
Emily Pontecorvo is a freelance science writer and multimedia producer based in Brooklyn.