4 September 2003

Bronx Community Paper Company

In the Internet Archive, the javascript ticker still scrolls “Recycling    Community Improvement    Water Conservation    Job Creation    Economic Development    Brownfield Reclamation,”  beneath the former Web site:

“The Bronx Community Paper Company (BCPC) — a joint project of the Bronx-based Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council is an innovative effort to harness New York City’s ‘urban forest,’ which includes the 1.2 million tons of paper the city throws out every year, by building a paper de-inking and newsprint production facility in the city....

The end result will achieve several important objectives: creation of hundreds of long-term jobs; reduction of the City of New York’s costs for disposing of wastepaper; revitalization of an abandoned industrial tract in the inner city; and protection of forests....

Throughout the development process, the BCPC kept the public continually informed on the project’s progress. In fact, during the environmental licensing process, the BCPC held over 120 public meetings with members of the South Bronx community, although by law a developer is only required to hold one...

Map showing location of the Harlem River Rail YardWith all legal, political and environmental issues behind them, only two major tasks for the BCPC remain — securing a deal with a paper company to operate the plant, and, of course, building the mill.”

Facilities for the BCPC were to be built on the Harlem River Rail Yard, a brownfield site requiring environmental remediation. The mill was to produce 2,200 jobs during construction and more than 600 permanent full-time jobs during operation.

In 1997, the Department of Energy posted a glowing review of the project as a “sustainable business success story”:

  • The manufacturing facility will be an integrated recycling paper mill, including a wastepaper de-inking plant, a newsprint paper making machine, a wastepaper sorting plant and a steam boiler.
  • The project will advance the market for economically viable recycling of 100% post-consumer, totally chlorine-free paper.
  • The mill will serve as a solid waste alternative for a city recently proposing to build seven large waste incinerators.
  • The paper mill will enable a major paper-making company to use secondary fibers for the manufacture of its newsprint, a commodity that is now manufactured mostly with virgin timber.
  • The Harlem Rail Yard, an abandoned industrial facility in an out-of-use rail yard, will serve as the site of the mill. An additional goal of the project is to redevelop the rails, which will then serve as a transportation corridor for materials to and from the facility.
  • The project will pioneer the use of water from a reclaimed sewage wastewater treatment plant, keeping water costs one-third lower than comparable fresh water.
  • A comprehensive air study of the South Bronx was initiated to ensure technologies will be implemented to reduce to the greatest extent possible all emissions from the facility.
  • The project will incorporate innovative energy-efficient technologies not implemented in any other paper mill in the country.
  • The mill will utilize a chlorine-free de-inking technology that produces no air emissions or odors.
  • Maya Lin, designer of the National Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, will design the facility’s layout and structure.

Banana Kelly was founded in 1977 when thirty residents gathered to stop the demolition of their homes along Kelly Street, a crescent shaped block in the heart of the Longwood/Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx. Without support, tools, money, title to the property, they succeeded in rehabilitating the buildings and in creating 21 units of high-quality affordable housing. The activists formed the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, Inc. to continue the work that they had started. Since 1978, the organization has rehabilitated, weatherized, and managed thousands of housing units, provided service referral and housing advocacy, conducted education and job training, and attracted the first new health care clinic in the community in 22 years.

Revenue from the Bronx Community Paper Company was to fund other community development projects in the neighborhood, including:

  • The Bronx Dormitory Project. A joint venture between Banana Kelly and Bronx Regional High School that will provide shelter for up to 20 students attending the high school who do not have stable living arrangements.
  • The South Bronx Family Learning Center. A proposed 35,000-square-foot center that will include health care, child care, literacy classes, employment and training centers and housing opportunities.
  • The Prospect Corridor Commercial Development Project. This project will promote local economic development by connecting existing and planned residences with a retail strip on Prospect Avenue.
  • The Library Project. A project to increase the availability of library services in the South Bronx by providing additional equipment, supplies and materials to local libraries.
  • Business and Housing Revolving Loan Fund. This project will provide a pool of working capital to be used by small entrepreneurs to purchase inventory, equipment or supplies to meet their contractual obligations and expansion needs. The fund will concentrate its services on housing groups that require basic repairs or replacement of major systems in their buildings.
  • The Children’s Endowment Fund. To be administered by Banana Kelly, this fund will enhance and expand the educational and vocational opportunities available to children.


But by 2000 the project had folded.


From The New York Times, August 17, 2003

‘Bronx Ecology’: Green, Rocky Road

Proposed factory design for the Bronx Community Paper Company“In 1992, Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, proposed building a paper mill in the South Bronx. It would harvest the immense amount of wastepaper (used newspapers, junk mail, office detritus) New York City generates each day, recycle it into newsprint using ecologically sound methods and sell the product to local consumers, notably newspapers. Such a mill would address two city woes: the continuing slump, particularly severe in places — like the South Bronx — long dependent on the shrinking manufacturing sector (joblessness there hovered around 20 percent, 50 percent for teenagers); and the loss of traditional outlets for the city’s waste stream (ocean dumping, hauling to putrid landfills and burning in dioxin-spewing plants).

More grandly, Hershkowitz’s Bronx Community Paper Company would serve as a world-class demonstration project. He wanted to prove the viability of green capitalism — a marriage of economic development and environmental remediation+- to a host of unbelievers in the business world and the environmental movement, who were locked (he believed) in unnecessary combat. Hershkowitz knew the city presented a host of special obstacles to eco-industrialists, but if a mill like this could make it here, he reasoned, it could make it anywhere. He came amazingly close to pulling it off, as ‘Bronx Ecology,’ by Hershkowitz himself, and ‘Tilting at Mills,’ by Lis Harris, for many years a staff writer at The New Yorker, show.

To guarantee good relations with the plant’s neighbors, Hershkowitz found a local sponsor in Banana Kelly, one of the community development corporations that had sprung up in the 70’s, and vested ownership in it. Determined to resuscitate urban brownfields (polluted and abandoned industrial sites), the paper company settled on the derelict Harlem River Rail Yard. And to transform what others saw as waste into valuable raw material — a key precept of the sustainable economy movement — he insisted the mill use recycled water from a nearby sewage treatment plant instead of river water.

Hershkowitz found a receptive Swedish paper company, and with a corporate anchor secured, investment bankers came on board, as did construction companies and engineers. He got Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, to design a striking complex. The Natural Resources Defense Council put up seed money and helped clear regulatory hurdles. A bevy of foundations gave predevelopment grants. The state offered loan guarantees and helped with cleanup costs, and the city’s economic development arm provided expertise. On paper, it looked like a half-billion dollar enterprise was taking off.

Almost immediately it slammed into problems.

Businessmen’s support proved fickle: from their perspective Hershkowitz had overburdened the project with costly, time-consuming and risky furbelows on behalf of extraneous, if not alien, social and ecological goals. Worse, when the Swedish firm withdrew (new management wanted to concentrate on European ventures) it proved impossible to find another big paper company, the kind Wall Street would approve (one potential replacement declined after calculating it could clear more than 30 percent in the Bronx, but 40 percent in South Korea). Besides, in the 90’s boom, higher profits were available outside the industry altogether, in tech stocks or hedge funds. After 1992, moreover, the supply of newsprint outran demand, so producers began consolidating; the last thing they wanted was a new plant online.

And there were local competitors. In 1995, an Australian company built a recycling mill on Staten Island and won the right to process up to 50 percent of the city’s wastepaper. Though not in direct competition — it produced liner board (used, for example, for shoe boxes), not newsprint — it lobbied hard against any municipal deal with Hershkowitz, just in case one day it might want the remainder. Also opposing the Bronx project were commercial carters linked to the mob, and waste haulers whose profits were linked to exporting the trash, including giant multinational corporations like Waste Management , whose campaign contributions gave them considerable clout at City Hall. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was already predisposed against the project because the Bronx was the domain of a rival, Fernando Ferrer, though in fact Ferrer too was an opponent, miffed he hadn’t been allowed to pick the participating community groups.

Some of Hershkowitz’s biggest headaches came from his presumed community ally, whose new leadership proved undependable. Other community groups were also on the attack, some because the building trades refused to give construction jobs to neighborhood people, others because they wanted a slice of the development pie. (Once he was told that $70,000 would make his problems go away; when he refused to come across, Hershkowitz says, it was publicly implied that the plant was environmentally genocidal.)

Despite all this, Hershkowitz and the project plowed on, year after year, nimbly escaping one crisis only to tumble into another. Finally, just after having found a large construction company willing to undertake the project, the backers were sued by a rival construction firm (a common way to grab a piece of the action). Now the Natural Resources Defense Council itself wanted out, and its employee off the case. The paper company was handed over to the contractor-developer in 1999 and struggled on one more year before Giuliani pulled the plug....

The real question is how useful his blueprint for a greener future really is. Here, it seems to me, Hershkowitz pulls back from confronting the implications of what he’s laid out, particularly the key question of who exactly might be the agent to make his vision real. It’s clearly not the corporate world: ‘green capitalism’ stands revealed as a patent oxymoron. He urges environmentalists to step forward, but there’s no sign that major environmental groups will soon venture again into eco-industrial waters (certainly not if they read ‘Bronx Ecology’). As for labor, union pension fund managers proved even more conservative than investment bankers.

Hershkowitz comes closest to the mark when he wonders if the state might not expand its role, either building green projects as public works or committing public capital as lead investor. Certainly — pace current free-market pieties — government is capable of ambitious enterprise, viz. the Manhattan Project, the the space program, the Internet and the New Deal. Moreover, putatively private industries (notably pulp and paper, petroleum and highway construction) are, Hershkowitz reminds us, heavily subsidized by various levels of government. Why not be transparent about public investment, and establish a federal development bank like, but better than, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that underwrote much of the New Deal and World War II? That might yet make Hershkowitz’s bold blueprint a reality.”


The Bronx Community Paper Company may be dead for now, but near by, in Hunt’s Point, a plastics recycling plant is just being planned.

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