The old-school approach to recycling was to ship the discarded material to distant processing plants, typically overseas. But that system suffered major disrupton last year, largely because China, as part of an anti-pollution crackdown, decided to stop importing most paper and plastic recyclables. That presented an epic question: Where to process all this stuff?
The answer lies close to home, judging by several Brooklyn startup companies that have pioneered ways to recycle everything from fabric to computers. “The waste industry is starting to come into a closed loop,” says Marisa Adler, a consultant at Resource Recycling Systems, who believes that in the next few years the industry will evolve on a local level.
“We’re really starting to realize that it’s all connected—through supply chains, through our limited natural resources—and I think that we’re going to start seeing more systems where the materials are recovered and the emerging technologies and startups are finding ways to more efficiently integrate recovered materials and resources back into products.”
These local entrepreneurs may help New York City achieve its Zero Waste goal, which calls for the end of sending waste to landfills by 2030. While the city’s sanitation department (DSNY) already collects 1,760 tons of recyclables each day, that’s still outweighed by a daily haul of 10,500 tons of residential and institutional garbage, shipped through facilities like the new Southwest Brooklyn Marine Transfer Station.
Among the Brooklyn startups aiming to make a dent in that trash pipline:
Turning Brewing Waste into Flour
Started by a group of five graduates from New York University, Rise Products creates high-fiber and protein-rich flour using spent grain from the beer-brewing process, usually malted barley. Co-founder Ashwin Gopi and his fellow graduates believe in a sustainability philosophy called industrial symbiosis, which promotes the idea of using one industry’s byproduct as the raw product of another.
The process is also called upcycling, meaning the creative re-use of material to make a better product or have a more desirable environment impact. In Rise’s case, the company says its “super flour” has 12 times the fiber and twice the protein of all-purpose flour.
Calling themselves “the Spent Grain People,” Rise Products upcycles leftovers from several of Brooklyn’s 20 craft breweries, including Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. and Sixpoint Brewery. The leftover grain, which is turned into flour through a proprietary process, is used by bakers at Runner & Stone in Gowanus and other shops across New York City. “Chefs are looking for healthy, nutritious, and local ingredients,” Gopi says, “and I think we hit all of those points.”
Rise Products creates two main flours—light and dark—both of which can be bought on their website. They also create customized flours for the bakeries that order from them.
While the founders know their technology—CEO Bertha Jimenez has a PhD in technology management—they’re learning about sales and marketing on the job. “We’re not very good at selling our products,” Gopi admits. “It took us a while to even learn the vocabulary.” So the founders take a personal approach to sales, walking into local bakeries and striking up conversations with chefs about their flour to persuade them to test their products.
Rise Products is also currently conducting tests of the flour with Kellogg’s and Nestlé. The two food giants “are looking for upcycled ingredients, especially fiber, which is missing from the American diet,” Gopi says.
A Solution for Textile Scraps
FABSCRAP collects unused rolls of fabric, clothing with imperfections, and leftover fabric from garment makers that can be reused by artists, crafters and students. Working out of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is situated near many clothing manufacturers, FABSCRAP also recycles material to create such products as carpet padding and moving blankets.
“Everyone at Brooklyn Army Terminal and the surrounding neighborhood have been so supportive about what we’re doing,” says Jessica Schreiber, founder of the startup. Her experience while working on the city’s clothing-recycling program at the DSNY inspired her to start FABSCRAP. While the city’s clothing-recycling program accepted castoff garments from consumers, it wasn’t equipped to receive commercial textile waste from businesses that were interested in participating.
FABSCRAP solved this problem by creating a process designed for processing raw textiles from fashion companies. Since its inception, FABSCRAP has collected more than 130,000 lbs. of raw material from dozens of fashion brands.
Co-founder Camille Tagle, a fashion designer by training, helps to classify and sell the fabric. Full rolls of fabric are cut into yards to be sold, while smaller pieces of textile are offered for sale as is. Students can buy fabric at a discount, while non-profit organizations can acquire fabric free of charge.
The company welcomes volunteers to help sort the fabric. After a three-hour shift, they’re welcome to help themselves to 5 lbs. of fabric. Says Schreiber: “Brooklynites tend to get the need for sustainability.”
Helping Film Crews to Tread Lightly
The TV-and-film crews on Brooklyn’s streets not only take up a lot of parking spaces, they use a lot of energy and throw away plenty of trash. Greenpoint-based Earth Angel provides environmental consulting services for entertainment productions to help reduce their environmental impact.
Founded by Emellie O’Brien, who has a BFA in film and TV from NYU, Earth Angel has advised more than two dozen productions including Madam Secretary (CBS), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Studios), The Post (21st Century Fox), and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Sony).
Entertainment production is “notoriously wasteful,” says the company, with examples ranging from fuel-guzzling generators to the dumping of used film sets into landfills. To date, the company says it has diverted 3,130 tons of waste from landfills and avoided the use of more than 1.5 million single-use plastic bottles.
Worthy causes benefit as well: Earth Angel has donated more than 59,000 meals and about 90 tons of unused products. What’s more, the firm says its efforts have successfully prevented 6,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
Giving Electronics a Second Life
The nature of electronic hardware is that users are constantly upgrading. But what happens to the cast-offs? Many companies recycle by removing parts and precious metals, while dumping the rest in landfills. Revivn, a company based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, has a more thoughtful approach.
Revivn serves businesses by collecting their excess hardware, making sure the data is secure, and repurposes the hardware based on whether it still has some usefulness left in it. The company partners with non-profit organizations including JustFix.nyc, Chicago Youth Centers and the Women’s Prison Association to place the hardware with disadvantaged people who might welcome a working computer, phone, keyboard or other device. Hardware items that technicians at Revivn deem unsalvageable are recycled responsibly using e-Stewards safety protocols.
Revivn aims to make the hardware-recycling process easy for businesses with a concierge service and deployment team that handles pickup and packaging of hardware. Companies that have recycled hardware through Revivn include Buzzfeed, Lyft, Teach for America, Christie’s and Twitter. Founded in 2012, the company has expanded to more than a dozen other cities and has plans to go global.