Nonprofit Recycler Creates
Jobs, New Use for Urban Land
By Rebecca Shannonhouse
NEW YORK -- Most passers-by saw only another fenced-off, forlorn and forgotten tract of industrial abandonment. But a gritty environmentalist and a community activist had another vision for the 26-acre "brownfield" in the South Bronx that long ago ceased to function as a railroad marshaling yard.
They saw it as the site of a plant that could recycle much of the more than 5,000 tons of newspapers and magazines that New York City, home of the ticker-tape parade and the three-pound Sunday paper, produces each week. In terms of trees, such a plant would be saving more than 17 square miles of timber forest per year.
This fall, ground is scheduled to be broken for The Bronx Community Paper Company, the creation of scientist Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation's most powerful environmental advocacy groups, and Yolanda Rivera, head of a 20-year-old South Bronx economic development group.
In combining forces, the two have set out to build what has become the largest private sector manufacturing venture in New York City since World War II.
President Clinton and New York Gov. George Pataki have joined local politicians in praising the facility's plan to preserve forestland by producing recycled newsprint instead of using standing timber.
After more than five years of planning and public discussion, construction of the paper-recycling plant is expected to be completed in 2000. The plant's design by Maya Lin, the artist who created the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, already has won accolades in architecture reviews.
"Typically, recycling projects, or any industrial projects, are not created by environmentalists," said Hershkowitz, who has been invited by 11 other cities to lead similar recycling ventures. But after years of waging anti-pollution battles in U.S. courtrooms, the New York-based NRDC has decided to throw its weight behind a project that would serve as a model for industry.
"We have to intervene to promote things that we like, not only intervene to stop things that we don't like," Hershkowitz added. To do that, the Bronx plant will have the capacity to recycle 280,000 metric tons of old newspapers and magazines each year to produce 220,000 metric tons of finished newsprint annually for use by local publishers.
In the process, the plant will aim to serve as an example of how recycling can cut down on the need for pollution-causing waste incinerators, while also reducing the pollution that results from transporting newsprint from isolated lumber mills to cities.
Cleaning up the abandoned Bronx railyard means that a so-called brownfield, a former industrial area with polluted ground, will be transformed into an economically productive site. The plant will incorporate state-of-the-art technology to reduce the emission of smog-producing compounds and provide more than 80 percent of the project's water needs by relying on treated sewage wastewater.
Nationwide, paper mills are increasing their use of recovered paper. The American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, D.C., noted recently that in 1996 a 2.9-million-ton increase in recovered paper consumption at domestic mills was the largest single annual increase in history.
Bronx residents, meanwhile, are pinning their hopes on the plant's projected economic jump-start. During the 22-month construction phase of the project, approximately 2,200 jobs will be created, with 600 permanent jobs remaining when the site becomes fully operational. Overall, the plant is expected to generate an estimated annual tax revenue of $7 million for New York City.
"The desire of the people here to work is so great that small-scale economic development is not going to address the population," said Rivera, who heads the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, the South Bronx group that got its name after saving a curve-shaped section of Kelly Street from demolition. "You need to have large-scale industrial development or manufacturing so it can provide the jobs that people need in order to sustain their livelihood."
Part of the challenge, however, was attracting investors to the rough streets of the South Bronx. "We had this reputation that prevented businesses from wanting to come here and that had to be dispelled," Rivera said. "So we brought investors here and finally they realized from talking to people that they're not animals here."
American and European investors, whose names are not being disclosed at this time, are backing the recycling plant, said Rivera. Meanwhile, the community also plans to develop other businesses that would complement a local paper company.
"We're interested in attracting businesses that are safe to this community instead of having economic development occur haphazardly as it has in the past," Rivera said.
Carmen Allende, who has lived in the Bronx for 45 years, said that she was reassured about the recycling plant's air quality standards after attending public meetings to discuss the project. It was a measure of all parties' concerns that the NRDC held more than 120 meetings on the issue when the community law only required one. "There was always adequate representation and input from everyone," she said. "The paper company will bring jobs, which is most important. Economically, it will do a world of good. What we want now is to see it happen."
"The recycling industry looks at this as a proposal," said Chaz Miller, senior manager at the National Solid Wastes Management Association in Washington.
"The advantage of the Bronx plant is the location, which is very close to New York City markets. On the other hand, is the demand for newsprint sufficient to justify building a new mill?"
According to Hershkowitz, the demand is more than sufficient. The recycling plant will provide newsprint not only for the city's major publishers, including The New York Times and New York Post, he said, but also national and international clients.
Once construction is complete, the paper mill will be framed by trees, a reminder of the forestland that is preserved by recycling. "When I look at the area I see it as ripe for opportunity," said Hershkowitz. "It's the place to be, as far as I'm concerned."
Posted: March 3, 1998