Big Changes Ahead for Commercial Waste Collection in NYC

The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio today released a study of the commercial carting industry in New York that highlights major deficiencies with existing operations and is likely to lead to broad scale reform of the waste industry in the nation’s largest city.

The study, released by the city’s Sanitation Department and Business Integrity Commission, recommends establishing commercial waste collection zones throughout the city as a means of cutting traffic and air pollution from private sanitation trucks.

And the beauty of the commercial waste zone concept is that it has the potential to address numerous environmental, quality-of-life and worker equity concerns associated with the current commercial carting system here.

According to the study, inefficiencies in the current private carting system mean that as much as 49 to 68 percent of the diesel truck traffic from private waste hauling operations is excessive and could be slashed by implementation of a more rational collection system. 

The study finds that commercial waste trucks travel over 23 million miles annually in New York City as they collect waste and recyclables from over 108,000 businesses. 

Thus, decreasing private carter truck traffic by 49 to 68 percent in New York City would represent a reduction in truck traffic equal to more than 23 trips to the moon and back every year.

NYC’s current system for collecting commercial waste is extremely inefficient—with trucks from 90 different companies crisscrossing city streets and generating millions of miles a year of unnecessary traffic and pollution.

The study also concludes that such truck traffic reductions could slash greenhouse gas emissions from the private carting industry by 42 to 64 percent.

In New York City, trash from residences, public schools and non-profit institutions is collected by the city’s Sanitation Department, while the private carting industry collects waste from city businesses. 

Under the current scheme for businesses, dozens of private carting companies, crisscross the city in haphazard routes to collect trash from individual restaurants, office buildings and other retail establishments. 

This commercial waste collection system has long been criticized for creating unnecessary traffic, generating excess pollution, and skimping on worker safety, training, and wages.

NRDC is part of a broad-based coalition of labor, environmental justice and other reform organizations—the Transform Don't Trash NYC coalition—that has for the past three years sought to revamp the poorly performing commercial carting industry in New York.

Creating a zone system for NYC’s commercial waste collections would slash truck miles traveled by 49 to 68 percent—the equivalent of traveling to the moon and back more than 23 times a year.

NASA

Here’s the reaction from four of the Transform Don’t Trash coalition leaders:

  • Brigid Flaherty, Organizing Director, ALIGN, “The data confirms what workers and communities have been saying for years: the current system burdens our neighborhoods with too much truck traffic and pollution, without delivering the recycling or good jobs we need.”
  • Eddie Bautista, Executive Director, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, “We again applaud the Mayor’s commitment to addressing the City’s sustainability goals in a more environmentally just manner.”
  • Justin Wood, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, “This unprecedented report confirms what ordinary New Yorkers have known for decades—that the commercial waste system is terribly inefficient, and that small business customers, workers, and communities are not treated equitably by the private waste industry.”
  • Sean Campbell, President of Teamsters Local 813, representing private sanitation workers, "The reforms that Mayor de Blasio announced today are giving renewed hope to the working families of the New York commercial sanitation industry that they can have the American Dream too."

The study released today—while recommending that the city move toward a new system of commercial waste zones—does not, of course, mandate that such a program begin immediately. Instead, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and other de Blasio Administration officials are suggesting a two year implementation period in which the details of the new commercial waste collection zone program would be developed.

It is also likely that the New York City Council will seek to work with the Administration to enact legislation that codifies the shift to commercial waste zone approach. Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Council’s Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee, has already been exploring options to accomplish just that with staff and colleagues including Councilmember Brad Lander.

The shift to a zone collection system has the potential to achieve other environmental benefits in addition to reductions in global warming emissions. For example, ground level pollutants from waste collection trucks would also be reduced, improving neighborhood air quality across the city. 

The new zone system could also increase commercial recycling and boost the levels of organics (including food waste) that are composted or disposed of in other environmentally sustainable ways (rather than being landfilled).  

There is, to be sure, much to be done before a zone system for collection of commercial waste is actually implemented in New York City. 

But the irrefutable data contained in this official government analysis make it much more likely that the city’s commercial waste collection system is about to undergo a dramatic and most welcome transformation.

The Transform Don't Trash coalition includes the following organizations:

  • ALIGN: The Alliance for a Greater New York
  • American Lung Association of the Northeast
  • B’nai Jeshrun
  • Brooklyn Solid Waste Advisory Board
  • El Puente*
  • Good Jobs New York
  • HabitatMap
  • International Brotherhood of Teamsters Joint Council 16 & Locals 813, 831 and 210
  • Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board
  • Morningside Heights/West Harlem Sanitation Coalition*
  • National Action Network, Queens Chapter
  • Neighbors Allied for Good Growth
  • New York City Central Labor Council
  • New York City Environmental Justice Alliance
  • New York Communities for Change
  • New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
  • Nos Quedamos*
  • NYCOSH
  • Sustainable South Bronx*
  • The Point Community Development Corporation*
  • The Pratt Center for Community Development
  • The Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ
  • Transportation Alternatives
  • UPROSE*
  • WE ACT for Environmental Justice
  • Working Families Party of New York
  • Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice*

New York City Environmental Justice Alliance member organization indicated by *.

About the Authors

Eric A. Goldstein

Senior Attorney and New York City Environment Director

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