You’ll Never Believe What New York City Is Recycling This Time


Repurposed industrial buildings as artist living, former banks as retail stores and ice cream parlors, old movie theatres turned fast-food eateries and grocery stores, spas and social clubs in old fire stations, pencil factories turned startup headquarters, and parking garages re-imagined as luxury condominiums dot the NYC landscape. It is no surprise that many older buildings no longer function in their original capacity. For some, like former warehouses along our waterfront and in older industrial areas, it is due to a decline in the way New York City does (or, doesn’t do) business. In an era of rising costs and concern for the impact that development and building has on our environment, advocates of re-use and recycling point to better building practice as key to cutting our footprints. This means using creativity and innovation to give new life to old buildings instead of simply tearing them down. Adaptive Reuse is happening all around you right now, and fits well with the ‘gritty urban aesthetic’ that is in vogue with architects, interior designers, and new businesses inhabiting these semi-new spaces. We are used to using buildings more than once, it would seem.

But what happens to other used-up parts of our City? As it turns out, a lot of people are interested in creative uses of everything from old payphones, to concrete from demolition jobs, and even subway cars. Some of these things are getting new starts due to nostalgia: they are part of the New York City identity, even if they are no longer useful in their original ways. Some of these things are simply cheaper than new, and cutting costs is as important to some tax-payers as cutting carbon. Below are some of the most interesting ways to repurpose, recycle, up-cycle, and salvage New York City.

New York City Subway Cars

The MTA has been dumping old subway cars offshore to create artificial reefs for some time now. Between 2001-2010, more than 2,500 cars were sent on new routes underwater to create new ocean habitats in Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. Don’t worry; the MTA strips the cars down to remove chemicals and other agents that might be harmful to marine life. Sinking the cars has several benefits: the MTA is able to get rid of old and outdated equipment, the structure of the cars provides habitat to a bounty of marine life and can assist with the rehabilitation of polluted waters by providing an anchor for filter feeding bivalves such as mussels and oysters. Underwater reefs may also contribute to wave reduction in extreme weather events by helping to absorb some of the energy from storm surge action.

Not everyone was on board at the start of the project, in 2003 New Jersey placed a moratorium on accepting the subway cars pending an environmental review, but asked for more in 2008. Subway cars are not the only transit headed underwater, other abandoned automobiles have been used alongside scrap like shopping carts.

Check out cool pictures of some underwater reef action here. This story has recently been making its way around the internet, and there is an exhibition featuring these images of car disposal at the NYU Kimmel Galleries through 3/15.

Rockaway and Coney Island Boardwalk

The Rockaway and Coney Island Boardwalks drew tourists by the thousands every year, but were largely demolished by the ferocious power of Superstorm Sandy. The boardwalks were originally made in the early and mid 1900s from exceptionally sturdy tropical hardwoods that are now difficult to get as more rainforest land is protected from deforestation (a very, very good thing). Rather than send the remnants of the old boardwalk to a landfill, NYC Parks Department salvaged much of the debris, and with encouragement from local residents and re-purposing advocates, slated it for re-use. Even before Sandy, smaller projects led to replacing parts of the Coney Island boardwalk with other materials, and parts of our boardwalks can be found at Brooklyn Grange, Think Coffee, and the McCarren Park Pool. Our boardwalks will no longer be made from unsustainable lumber, and concrete structures will help you chill at Beach 109 from now on.

You can check out an interactive map showing where the wood went at DNAinfo.

Demolition Materials

The buildings we cannot or do not repurpose for whatever reason get pulled down, divided up, and their component parts disposed of. Lots of demolition material heads to landfills, and scrap yards, but some of this material is being reused in creative ways.

At the new Queens Plaza Bicycle and Pedestrian plaza, chunks of old concrete sidewalks and medians are being re-used to add visual interest to the formerly unappealing, and dangerous area. These new barriers offer a serious level of protection for bicycles and pedestrians from cars that might jump the curb, as the concrete slabs are formidable foes. Interspersed with grassy plantings, the reused sidewalks have started their new life in a very zen-garden kind of way.

Niche businesses catering to gothamphiles of all kinds have cropped up around the city re-selling items that have been pulled from gutted buildings. You can find everything including elaborate doors, old fireplaces, stair-cases, and chandeliers. Places like Build it Green specialize in repurposing old wood, glass, bathroom fixtures, marble and granite- helping to reduce the nearly 19,000 tons of build material that are disposed of every day.

Shipping Containers

New York City has a complicated history with shipping containers. Their invention arguably heralded the death of our long-time port as business models shifted to the standardized, truck and train-ready method of import/export that required extra land that was readily available in Jersey. As you come up I-95 towards the city, you can see the shipyards expanding for what seems like forever, and the sight of unused, rusting containers in fading colors is something that used to let me know I was about 45 minutes from Midtown.

Now these containers are being used all over the world as part of the tiny house movement. In New York City, they are being used as ways to activate spaces left vacant due to financial crisis, and areas waiting for new development. They are even being used to create housing. Pop-Up shops at the DeKalb Market (now closed), and Pier 57 help attract pedestrians to sites that would otherwise be stagnant while the non-construction phases of development begin. They also let local artists and entrepreneurs show their wares, sell their food, and the spaces often have free activities to draw people in. The sites themselves might be controversial- development often is- but who doesn’t want to take a dip in this shipping container pool at Brooklyn Bridge Park?


If you haven’t ever brought something home off of the curb, you don’t know what you are missing. My living room is proudly, and quite trendily, decorated with repurposed furniture and artifacts that my roomies and I have discovered sitting by the curbside begging for another life.

And why not? You may find a new home for your old desk, bookshelf, pictures, tumblers, chairs and tchotchkes by posting ads to craigslist or, but failing that many items go to the curb.

Public art project #setinthestreet brings awareness to the amount and variety of materials that are disposed of on the curb with wonderfully mundane set-creation and then leaves the sets up for the public to interact with and post to social media. You may have seen the coverage gothamist had about this last year.

Given that NYC trash is a big problem that we ship off to other people, its important to remember that its perfectly fine to grab gently used items. Be diligent in checking for weird contaminants. Stay away from fabric and upholstery to avoid the dreaded bedbug.

Hell, NYC, even your dump is getting up-cycled

Subway Fare

MetroCards pose a serious litter problem- you’ve found more than 1 in your pocket, and seen them gathered in drains and subway tracks like pigeons around a pizza crust. The MTA introduced the $1 fee for new cards as a way to deter straphangers from creating MetroCard waste, but is debating even stronger measures for reducing the environmental impact of printing, selling, and tossing metrocards.

While the MTA debates raising your fare and getting rid of the Metrocard, industrious folks are making insanely detailed pop-art collages, clothes, and entire personas. Soon, games of poker may be played with this beautiful deck of repurposed cards.

Will they ever be as charming as the nostalgic subway token jewelry?


When is the last time you used the payphone? I can honestly say that I think I tried it once on my first trip to NYC. With near universal access to cell-phones, NYC’s fleet of payphone booths has become a collection of unused eyesores: rife with stickers and vandalism, the place where smokers go on a blustery day to light-up out of the wind. Some are still used to place 911 calls, and it’s likely that not every public phone will go the way of the rotary phone for this very reason.

Pay-Phones have been iconic to the identity of New York City for a long time, and are a featured part of our streetscape in movies, stories, t.v. shows and art. Recent attempts to reinvigorate these public spaces have seen payphone booths used as pop-up libraries, and even as time-machines transporting callers back to 1993. A city pilot project transformed many into information booths, and a further City initiative may create one of the largest public-access wifi networks, ringing in a new age for this cornerstone of NYC information infrastructure.

Water towers

Ubiquitous parts of the New York City skyline, the old water towers remind us of a bygone era. In reality, these are still a vital part of New York City’s water supply. Most buildings over 6 stories use them to maintain water pressure for tenants. Mismanagement and poor enforcement mean that they may be sorely neglected: collecting sediment and bacteria. New developments may use different technology to provide water pressure to tenants, leading to less water-towers over time.

These days you can find these water towers getting a new life: see them here as a pool, a chair, a speakeasy, reclaimed wood bars and flooring, and a canvas for artists like Jeff Koons.

Neglected Pier, and Transit Infrastructure

Before you demolish that old elevated train structure, or that derelict pier in the Hudson, remember that it can be salvaged and repurposed! Ever since the Highline blossomed on the West Side, New Yorkers have a rekindled love for not only looking at interesting old spaces partially reclaimed by nature and time, but investing in them and redesigning them for public benefit and use. Projects that propose similar re-birth for out of use infrastructure include the Harlem Piers Farm on a former Marine Transfer Station, a community plan for a green corridor and park on the Robert-Moses’ era and underutilized Sheridan Expressway, and the former trolley terminal gone rogue park proposal known as the Low Line.

This trend is not new, though, just a different shape: we’ve been turning derelict piers into waterfront parks for years. New Yorkers even repurposed a sand-pile from the construction of the World Trade Center as a beach! Nowadays adaptive re-use of this kind is seen as a solution to providing parks in neighborhoods lacking open space and community facilities, and addressing inequities in waterfront access. This is somewhat misleading, though, given the tendency to pair these new park spaces with luxury residential development.

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