Elizabeth Torres is another member of this workforce. Based in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, daughter Ellie, and black-and-white shih tzu Sol, she started working at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF, pronounced ‘murf’) run by Sims Municipal Recycling in 2013. She’d moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic when she was 16, and had been working at her family’s bodega, and doing seasonal work with a company that created Christmas displays in stores. She was drawn to work at Sims by the steady paycheck and the opportunity to further herself. “I’m a dreamer,” she says, “and I see myself going forward. I want to lead my own facility someday.” Her favorite book, she says, is The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz.
“I read it when I was in high school, in college, and a couple of times since then.”
Torres’ first job at the facility was as a laborer: separating clear from colored glass, as well as sweeping and wiping down equipment. The MRF is right on the New Jersey waterfront facing Brooklyn, and barges full of mixed plastic, metal and glass disgorge their contents there every day for sorting. These items would then take a journey on a series of conveyor belts, where machines would separate out the materials using magnets, optical sensors, jets of air, and crushers that break up glass so that it can fall through small gaps.
There’s something hypnotic about seeing inanimate objects do this intricate work on such a large scale, but human workers are also key at many stages of the journey. Mechanics maintain the machines, drivers operate mobile equipment, and sorters give the materials a final check before they are compressed into bales and sold on, removing any non-recyclables that had erroneously made it through the automatic sorting process.
Torres was only in this job for about seven months before she was promoted to supervisor. She’s now assistant manager of the facility, with a crew of more than 30 people, and her team have kept working through lockdowns, snowstorms: whatever comes at them. She runs the first shift, which means that she gets up at 4.30am, dropping off her daughter at daycare on the way to work, and works until 4.30pm. “We’re essential workers, and it’s been okay,” she says. “We’re very proud that we’re making a difference. Since day one, we’ve been taking all kinds of precautions, and we’ve kept on it. We haven’t stopped.”