Circular City Week: New York

Circular City Week: New York

Pressures on our waste management infrastructure have forced industries across sectors to address conventional sourcing and disposal within their supply chains. As an alternative, the circular economy emphasizes a closed loop approach that encourages sustainable consumption and production patterns. From an environmental awareness standpoint the impact is high—the economic output unlocked from this shift is even higher.

Circular City Week, a citywide festival for circular economy related topics, offered events and activities for the first time this past March. The festival highlighted the ways in which circular practices such as reducing, reusing, and recycling are transforming urban industries all over New York City. WRNSer’s fanned out across the city to learn how we as architects and citizens can design to support these innovative initiatives.

Panelists at ‘Achieving Circular Material Loops with Gypsum Wall Board’ at the Center for Architecture


Few products are more ubiquitous in construction than drywall, which makes up to 20% of all construction waste and has toxic effects when it degrades in a landfill (hydrogen sulfide is produced by sulfate-reducing bacteria under anaerobic conditions). A panel discussion, held at the Center for Architecture, explored ways to increase gypsum recycling and diversion to landfills. Gypsum can be recycled infinitely, but currently only 5% of gypsum is diverted due to constraints on labor, the need for storage, and economies of scale needed to sustain the recycling. This broken loop is particularly damaging as mining and coal plant residues form the base material for gypsum. Addressing this issue from multiple angles will reduce our reliance on a detrimental linear cycle of extraction, manufacturing, and disposal.

Materials for the Arts


Material reinterpretation is increasingly a theme represented in art as sustainability grips the national discussion. From its warehouse in Queens, Materials for the Arts encourages the upcycling of materials and diverting surplus product by fostering relationships with end users in arts, culture and education communities, invoking the phrase that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. A complimentary exhibition at the Vanderbilt Republic poised the question: what is the future of circularity? The immersive mixed media installation challenged our understanding of consumerism and offered an optimistic challenge to innovators of any age. Sustainability can be celebrated through the arts by finding interdisciplinary companionship between industries.

Sims Municipal Recycling


A pair of recycling facilities along Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront offers contrasting tales of material recycling yet the same call to action. Sims Municipal Recycling, in Sunset Park, sorts tons of metal, glass, and plastic from New York City’s curbside recycling program through rail and marine transfer links. Processing the largest volume in North America, the facility itself is a standout on the waterfront. Designed by Selldorf Architects, Sims features an education wing and elevated observation deck hosting schoolchildren weekly. The only operable Wind Turbine in the city marks the facility’s location and articulates its sustainable message.

Cooper Recycling Facility

Sorting only construction and demolition waste, the privately owned Cooper Recycling facility recycles 95% of incoming materials from its site off of Newtown Creek. Cooper Recycling is a member of US Green Building Council and the only facility in New York that is certified by the Recycling Certification Institute, which is an added bonus for project teams looking to achieve sustainability ratings and certifications. However despite the creekside location and adjacent rail line, the facility is fed by truck transport.

Both facilities touted their ability to sort for material, size, and even color through a series of automated processes but emphasized the changes in global trade that were curtailing their efforts. Of note, China’s decreased interest in paper and low-quality plastics has caused a spike in material headed to landfill. Both Sims and Cooper articulated a need to find a domestic audience that would utilize their products.