What Happens After We Throw It Away?

Infographic on Waste at FIT

Click image or here to enlarge infographic

I have a confession to make: plastic terrifies me. I learned at an impressionable age that all our yogurt containers, plastic grocery bags, clamshell packaging, Styrofoam cups, and countless other petrochemical polymers will remain intact in landfills for hundreds of years. Nightmares of being swallowed by a churning pit of trash have haunted me ever since.

Recycling my trash has calmed me somewhat, but recently I began wondering what happens to those recyclables. I’ve always had to trust that my plastic bottles become more bottles, that my used paper becomes more paper, and that there’s enough landfill for all our trash. Things get more complicated at FIT than in the home, because of the myriad materials that require special handling. I decided to stop trusting and start investigating.

Thus began an exhaustive project of tracking every type of material that gets thrown out at FIT. I spent months interviewing faculty and staff from almost every department, plus representatives from waste management companies that the college works with, to find out what we throw away, where it goes, and what happens after that. It wasn’t enough to know what we recycle; I became obsessive about discovering what these things became after they were boiled, shredded, crushed, or melted down. Everywhere I looked, I found a story.

With help from a grant from FIT’s Sustainability Council, Hue hired Nigel Holmes, who for decades has designed “explanation graphics” for Time magazine and many other publications, to translate my research into an engaging infographic, presented on these pages. He also created a series of posters that were displayed at FIT’s Eighth Annual Sustainable Business and Design Conference. Visit fitnyc.edu/sustainabilityconference for information about this year’s conference.

My first discovery was that FIT disposes of a staggering array of waste types, including such chemicals as “spent pickle” in the Jewelry Design labs, photo fixer in the darkrooms, urethanes in the Toy Design lab, and polychlorinated biphenyl from old lighting fixtures. These can’t be thrown in the trash or poured down the drain. Joseph Arcoleo, director of environmental, health, and safety compliance at FIT, and the faculty and staff who work with him, see that every potentially hazardous material is treated safely and responsibly.

I also learned that I had been disposing of a few things incorrectly myself.

But my biggest lesson was that nothing in the waste management business is simple. With few exceptions, everything that we throw away must travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to its final destination. And while it’s not cheap to send trash to a landfill, recycling can be even more expensive. For example, if someone leaves an unlabeled bottle of liquid in a lab or doesn’t store volatile chemicals correctly, disposing of them safely can cost thousands of dollars. A half-empty aerosol can must be sent to a specialized puncturing facility before its contents can be blended into fuel. And even though we can be reasonably certain that, say, the aluminum can we recycle will be used to make more cans, or that a paper bag will become part of a pizza box, it’s hard to know what will happen to those polystyrene or polypropylene takeout containers, even now that New York City accepts them for recycling.

For me, the scariest thing is that our city produces enough garbage every day to fill the Empire State Building, and most of that is sent to landfills in other states. That rapacious trash monster I feared as a kid might not be such a fantasy after all.

But the high price of sending trash to landfills has resulted in some hopeful news. Waste management companies are investing in technologies to recover and recycle as much as possible from simple trash. For example, about 80 percent of Manhattan’s trash is converted to electricity in Newark, using a relatively clean incineration process. Even plastics that are essentially worthless are beginning to find second lives in construction projects.

I can report that FIT makes a significant effort to reuse and repair instead of throwing away, to recycle when possible, and to dispose of everything else responsibly. And FIT’s Sustainability Council, established by President Joyce F. Brown, has helped engineer many other eco-initiatives on campus.


• All cafeteria waste is recycled or composted. Even the disposable utensils, which are made of corn plastic, are ground up on site and trucked to a compost facility.

• The print shop recently went 100 percent digital, eliminating both paper waste and the use of toxic chemicals.

• Most of FIT’s departments, academic and otherwise, have been mindful about reducing and reusing materials.

• The college has installed “green roofs” atop several academic buildings; in addition to the atmospheric benefits of extra foliage, this rooftop greenery soaks up rainwater, helping to prevent sewers from overflowing into the Hudson River during storms.

Typical of large institutions, FIT still creates a massive amount of waste, but these and other efforts have made a significant impact, and we continue to look for ways to improve.

Special thanks to Joseph Arcoleo, FIT’s director of environmental, health, and safety compliance; Rebecca Fraley Corrado, assistant vice president of administration; George Jefremow, executive director of facilities; Astor Pagan, director of facilities and maintenance for the residence halls; Mohammed Sdad, director of buildings and grounds; Odir Pacheco, food service director; Roy Larsen, print manager; Jana Duda, technology resource manager; the Sustainability Council; President Joyce F. Brown; and many others at FIT and beyond

Discussion — One Response

  • Joao 05/25/2015 on 1:04 pm

    I watched all 62 miunets. Some very good insights from these panelists. Take it from someone that speaks on panels about environmentalism you will learn something if you listen to this.Good pick, Rich and Dave!VA:F [1.9.21_1169]please wait…VA:F [1.9.21_1169](from 0 votes)

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