By Joy Bergmann
Ask Anthony Bianco if he’s proud of his profession and you’ll see a smile no mask can hide.
“Of course!” says Bianco, a 23-year veteran of NYC’s Department of Sanitation [DSNY] and current Assistant Chief of Operations for its Bureau of Solid Waste Management. “We serve the public. Picking up garbage and keeping the streets clean is a big help and protects people’s health.”
Bianco spends his days roaming the city managing what happens after DSNY trucks collect garbage and recyclables.
Each year, Bianco says, about 15,000 truckloads of discarded paper products arrive at the West 59th Street Marine Transfer Station [MTS], two giant sheds sitting on Pier 99 in the Hudson River where refuse has been dumped into barges since 1939.
To learn more, WSR spent a recent morning with Bianco touring the neon-festooned facility. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
WSR: Is this where our holiday wrapping paper and boxes end up?
AB: All the paper DSNY picks up in Manhattan gets dumped at this facility. Wrapping paper, newspaper, magazines, boxes, envelopes. Corrugated boxes are probably the best for recycling. The less ink on the paper, the better it is for the mills to process for reuse.
WSR: What’s the process?
AB: Trucks come up and get weighed. We dump the truck’s contents, and then the truck gets weighed on the way out. The difference tells us the paper quantity that was actually inside the truck.
WSR: What kind of volume are we talking about?
AB: We do about 80,000 tons a year out of this facility.
WSR: You’ve got two massive barges in here at a time.
AB: It’s a two-slip operation. As one gets full, we use the empty one. We keep the flow, never stopping the trucks from dumping. DSNY owns 15 barges. Each one measures about 150 feet long, 35 feet wide, 15 feet deep. A full barge has roughly 330 tons on it [660,000 pounds].
WSR: What happens next?
AB: We contract with tug boat operators who transport the full barges over to Pratt Industries in Staten Island. They process the paper and turn it into corrugated boxes using recycled material.
WSR: A circular waste stream starts here on the Upper West Side.
AB: It’s like the birthing grounds for everything that’s being reused. What’s in this barge becomes boxes for Home Depot, Amazon, Domino’s, USPS. It’s fantastic. Whatever we collect, that’s one less tree they take down. And we keep the material out of landfills.
[In a follow-up email, a DSNY spokesperson explained further: “This public/private partnership benefits both sides, and the main thing both parties get is a reliable, consistent partner. Pratt knows there will be paper to feed their mill, and DSNY has a reliable place to deliver it. Pratt has a contract to buy the paper at a minimum price of $10/ton, which makes it easier for DSNY to avoid fluctuations in market value that would be difficult to accommodate while balancing a municipal budget.”]
WSR: Shipping versus driving has additional benefits, right?
AB: Imagine 15,000 trucks a year needing to drive to Staten Island to dump, versus 280 barges. It’s all geared to reduce the carbon footprint, reduce the number of trucks that you see in the streets.
WSR: Something I love to see is the MTS’s neon artwork at night.
AB: That happened after this whole facility got rebuilt in the late 1980s.
WSR: Right. As the plaque out front says, in 1990 the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs commissioned the neon work by Stephen Antonakos as part of its “Percent for Art” program.
AB: I love the neon. The place has a character. Some people think it’s a disco, a rave club.
WSR: It still looks great 30+ years later.
AB: The Public Design Commission is very adamant about having [the neon] perfectly in place. We have a contract with a local company to do monthly checks on it. I met the artist’s wife a few times; she’s very actively involved. It’s part of the fabric of the skyline.
WSR: As part of the same project, there was a neo-classical archway by Richard Dattner installed at the entrance. But it got removed around 2013, 2014?
AB: Yes. Over the past 20 years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in bike and pedestrian traffic in front of our entrance. That bike path is the busiest in the city. Removing the arch improved visibility for drivers, making it safer for everyone.
WSR: What’s up with the colorful lights in the office?
AB: Those are controls for our recently upgraded HVAC and fire systems.
WSR: Speaking of which, what do we know about that early December barge fire?
AB: It’s still under investigation. We hadn’t had a barge fire here in I don’t know how long.
WSR: What often causes such fires?
AB: People throwing lithium batteries in the garbage. It might be tiny, but if it’s compressed under tons of paper, it could implode or create heat that eventually ignites the paper.
[A spokesperson says, systemwide, DSNY has a smoldering condition caused by a rechargeable battery at least once a day. And even the tiny batteries that power “singing” greeting cards can cause fires if improperly discarded. Learn about proper battery disposal options here.]
WSR: Taking care of trash is no simple matter.
AB: It’s a great job. It’s changed over the years and keeps changing, evolving to serve the community — recycling, compost, e-waste. That’s what keeps the job fresh.
WSR: Your enthusiasm is contagious!
AB: I’m a third-generation sanitation worker. I’ve been bleeding green since I was born.
See paper waste journey from the West 59th Street Marine Transfer Station and transform into boxes at Pratt Industries in this 2014 DSNY video:
Thank you for this glimpse inside. Really interesting!
Here’s a video of what happens next
The Pratt video linked in the 1st comment shows their facility in Georgia, which is much larger, and includes a sorting process for plastic, paper and metal. The Pratt facility in Staten Island only accepts paper and cardboard. That’s why we separate out those things at home, and it is collected and sent to w 59th st. Here is a tour of the Staten Island Pratt. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXABlDk4cYU
Nice story. Thanks, Anthony for being a dedicated City worker. It’s pretty easy for us to dis sanitation workers (and other muni employees) in this city. But we really depend on them!
And it’s great to know that the paper and cardboard we so carefully sort and recycle really DOES end up being reused.
This is so cool! Thanks for this article.
Fascinating! Thanks Anthony—have a happy, healthy 2022 ✨
Thank you so much. This was fascinating.
This is fascinating! I’d love to see more pieces on what becomes of the other things we discard, including glass, plastic, and metal as well as non-recyclables.
So no connection with Sims in the Gowanus? Ask about a tour of North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. Would love to go.
Great piece! So glad to learn all this, having lived a chunk of the past two decades and most of my kid’s life at the de Witt Clinton Playgrounds, along the River, and cycling past many times. Always wanted to know more.
Fabulous story! I’m so grateful for our DSNY employees, and all public works employees for that matter, as they truly do keep our city running. Thank you for this fascinating profile.
I feel like I’ve been n a school field trip – very interesting!
What a great and informative article!
The time-lapse photography accompanied by the music was so creatively done, interesting and fun to watch…..fabulous!!!
Would love to see more about what makes our city tick.
Fantastic story. So pleased to read things like this about our city! Thanks so much!
Thanks for the videos of the recycling process. It goes to show that separating your garbage really makes sense. In fact, the decomposition of the paper in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas with 21 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide (CO2) so recycling is truly good for the environment. Has the Sanitation Dept. considered placing solar panels on its facilities? They have plenty of sunlight and it would cut down on the energy used to recycle the solid waste.
I love articles like this. Please do more!