New York City Is Finally Cleaning Up Its Commercial Garbage Industry

A new waste equity law aims to remedy a decades-long injustice that has turned certain outer-borough neighborhoods into de facto dumping grounds.
A Sanitation Salvage truck working garbage pickups along on 188th Street and Valentine Avenue in the Bronx

Ryan Christopher Jones

New York City’s restaurants, offices, and businesses generate 13,000 tons of solid waste every single day. Load by load, all that trash gets hauled to privately owned transfer stations across the city, then moved on to landfills or incinerators outside the five boroughs. And in the midst of that journey, tens of thousands of residents breathe air that’s both foul-smelling and heavy with truck exhaust. These are the people who live near one of the 38 waste transfer stations, 26 of which are clustered in just three areas: the South Bronx, North Brooklyn, and Southeast Queens.

But a new law signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in August 2018 aims to remedy this decades-long injustice—and keep other communities from becoming similarly overburdened. The waste equity legislation, sponsored by New York City Council member and sanitation committee chair Antonio Reynoso, halves the allowed capacity for waste transfer stations in North Brooklyn and cuts the permitted capacity in the South Bronx and Southeast Queens by a third. Looking to the future, it also limits the amount of waste that any single neighborhood can accept, capping it at 10 percent of the city’s total. (The law pertains only to commercial waste, which accounts for about half of the city’s daily trash and is collected by private carters. New York City’s Department of Sanitation [DSNY] collects residential and institutional waste.)

The legislation followed years of negotiations and lobbying efforts by environmental justice and community advocates, who had originally pushed for a more stringent bill that lowered the amount of actual waste handled by these communities, not just the permitted capacity. Despite its flaws, most see the law as a critical first step in fixing a larger, deep-rooted problem of private sanitation companies wreaking havoc on public health and well-being throughout the city.

“Not only does the legislation reduce impacts for the most overburdened communities and prevent others from becoming the disproportionate new dumping grounds, it also serves as a lead-in to across-the-board reform of the commercial waste industry, which in New York City is completely broken,” says Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney and New York City environment director at NRDC. Together with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Teamsters Local 813, and a host of community groups, NRDC was part of a coalition that helped push the legislation across the finish line.

“It’s a first step. This was never going to be a silver bullet,” says Eddie Bautista, executive director of NYC-EJA, who has been working on this issue since the early 1990s. “Even the strongest bill we contemplated would have meant that most of the waste would be coming to these communities.” That bill, which ultimately failed to pass in December 2017, would have reduced the actual waste handled by these communities by 18 percent. After strong opposition from the waste industry, members of the city council revised the language to target permitted capacity instead of actual waste received.

The Brooklyn Transfer station on Thames Street

Christian Hansen

The idea behind a waste equity bill in New York City dates back to 1989, when the newly revised New York City Charter included a “fair share” provision intended to ensure environmentally burdensome facilities would be more evenly distributed throughout the city. Then, in 2006, a revised Solid Waste Management Plan specifically targeted waste transfer stations by including a commitment from the city to begin reducing the amount of waste each station in overburdened neighborhoods could accept. In 2010, after four years of failed negotiations between DSNY and the private carters, advocacy groups began pressing the City Council for the legislation that finally passed this year.

Though not perfect, the new law will certainly make an impact. Most immediately, DSNY estimates the new limits, which will take effect beginning in October 2019 as part of each station’s annual permit renewal process, will reduce the total amount of allowable waste in the three neighborhoods by 1,200 to 1,800 tons a day. That means that the new law will prevent some 120 to 180 additional garbage trucks from rolling through the neighborhoods to dump waste, and 60 fewer tractor-trailers will barge through to haul it away in these three areas.

The waste trucks bring a disproportionate amount of noise, pollution, and safety concerns to these neighborhoods, which house many low-income families and communities of color. Andrea Scarborough of the Addisleigh Park Civic Organization in southeastern Queens says the waste at transfer stations in her neighborhood causes such noxious odors, and the garbage trucks are so loud, that Community District 12 residents, about half of whom struggle to pay their rent every month, often can’t even open their windows.

And these problems don’t impact only the communities that directly surround the sanitation facilities. Many people are “located right by the Williamsburg Bridge and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, so we get a lot of traffic from trucks going through our area to and from the many waste transfer stations throughout North Brooklyn,” says Leslie Velasquez, environmental justice program manager at South Williamsburg’s El Puente, a member organization of NYC-EJA. “The pollution from those trucks, plus all the other traffic, makes the air quality really bad.” According to a 2015 report by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Williamsburg and neighboring Greenpoint rank eighth on the list of city neighborhoods with the highest fine particulate air pollution.

Then there’s the issue of safety. After the closure of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill in 2001, the transfer stations began accepting more of the city’s commercial waste—and with that increase came more trucks speeding through neighborhoods trying to stay on top of jam-packed schedules. Bautista notes that the workers on these private sanitation trucks—often young men of color—aren’t provided with safety equipment or given much of a break during their long shifts. He also says that because the workers are often formerly incarcerated or undocumented, they don’t have many employment options and therefore tend to keep quiet about the unsafe working conditions. “It’s an industry rife with abuses and exploitation,” Bautista says.

The industry’s long history of labor and safety violations was detailed in a recent ProPublica investigative report by Kiera Feldman, which described how in a span of five months, two men died in separate incidents involving a Bronx company called Sanitation Salvage. The victims were Mouctar Diallo, a 21-year-old Guinean immigrant and off-the-books employee who was killed under the wheels of the truck he was working on in November 2017, and 72-year-old Leo Clarke, who had been crossing the street with a cane when he was hit by a Sanitation Salvage truck in April 2018. (After Diallo’s accident, Sanitation Salvage lied to police about his death, claiming he was a homeless man who had jumped aboard the truck. At the end of August, the Business Integrity Commission suspended the company’s license to operate, saying it posed “an imminent danger to life and property.”)

A Sanitation Salvage picking up garbage on Jerome Ave and Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, the same intersection where Mouctar Diallo was killed in November 2017

Ryan Christopher Jones

Goldstein credits the ProPublica investigation with being the final push the city needed to pass the long-awaited waste equity bill and, ultimately, address its broken commercial waste system. “Timing is everything in politics,” he says, “and it helped that there were so many visible examples of the commercial carting industry creating safety problems and traffic problems.” Goldstein also notes that both the persistence of grassroots advocates and the support of certain city officials were essential to getting the bill enacted into law. Specifically, he cites Reynoso and 35-year-old City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who sees the council as “the voice for the voiceless, the champions of the most vulnerable.”

The next chapter of advocacy is now beginning. Through a campaign called “Transform Don’t Trash NYC,” Bautista, Goldstein, and their partners—along with New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia—are seeking a commercial waste zoning system throughout the city. As it currently stands, up to 40 companies can be hauling waste within a several-block radius. Ideally, the new system would grant an exclusive contract to just one or two carters for each of perhaps 20 designated zones; this would significantly minimize congestion and pollution, address safety concerns, and help the city better regulate the industry as a whole. According to a 2016 study by DSNY and the Business Integrity Commission, a zoning system would reduce by 49 to 68 percent the 23 million miles that the diesel waste trucks collectively travel every year.

Despite the years of delay in advancing the waste equity bill and the expected pushback from the private carting industry to block further reform, Goldstein is hopeful about the potential for the introduction of a zoning system. “Momentum and positive accomplishments feed on themselves,” he says. “Perhaps the most important quality that you can have as someone who's trying to bring environmental change is persistence. And this battle exemplifies that reality.”

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