This story is the second in a five-part series
on challenges facing the city’s municipal waste system.
As midnight approaches, commercial garbage trucks rule the streets of New York. On a Thursday night in Lower Manhattan, trucks from five different companies can be spotted within as many blocks. Workers hang off the back on a marathon ride to pick up New York’s unwanted debris. The sun will be up all too soon and they have hundreds of stops to go.
The Department of Sanitation (DSNY) doesn’t pick up commercial waste, permitting a parallel—but very dissimilar—system to operate. Every night of the week, potentially thousands of trucks from different private carting companies crisscross the five boroughs. They go where the money takes them and have ever-changing stops at varying times of night, with shifts that often last 10 hours or more. Clients range from laundromats with a couple light bags to restaurants with dense, leaky piles to office buildings with mountains of garbage.
This variation in routes and material collected has led to increasing questions about the system’s efficiency and effectiveness.
“The commercial waste system is a disaster and they’re the only ones in denial,” says Antonio Reynoso, chair of the City Council’s sanitation committee.
Statistics in the shadows
A campaign called Transform Don’t Trash (TDT) aims to reform the system. Led by the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the campaign has been publishing reports and holding rallies to bring more attention to the industry.
Because the private carting companies report statistics about their operations to a variety of government agencies—not all of it publicly available—getting a full picture of the commercial waste system is difficult.
More than 250 private carting companies hold approved trade waste removal licenses with the city. Yet this list also includes companies that pick up construction and demolition waste, cooking grease, scrap metal and other items. A commonly cited 2013 study by an environmental consulting firm said there were 4,281 licensed trucks collecting commercial waste and recyclables at the time. That also included grease tankers, box trucks and other types of trucks.
Estimates about the amount of miles driven by commercial trucks are also unreliable. Based on even the most conservative figures they still travel about twice as many miles per year as DSNY trucks to collect a similar amount of waste.
According to a recent TDT report, the amount of commercial waste generated in the city—not including construction and demolition—could be as high as 5.5 million tons per year. Yet the 2012 DSNY study that the figure comes from indicates the amount is purely an estimate and not based on any actual measurements. The report said that 3.5 million tons is a more reliable amount. A spokesperson from DSNY confirmed this. The TDT report also notes that the industry’s 25 percent recycling rate is much lower than the 40 percent listed by the city in its 2011 PlaNYC update.
Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC proposal has called for a 90 percent reduction in commercial waste by 2030, along with an increased diversion rate for recyclable materials. Environmental advocates applaud this, but say it may be hard to achieve in such a complicated system. The 2012 DSNY study noted as many as 79 different carting companies operating in Midtown Manhattan. These trucks then tip in a variety of places—mainly the three transfer station hubs in the South Bronx, northern Brooklyn and southeast Queens.
“We want a system where a truck that picks up waste in Coney Island doesn’t take it to a facility in the South Bronx,” says Gavin Kearney, director of environmental justice for NYLPI.
TDT is pushing for a new franchise system, where a limited number of carters could bid for the rights to pick up a particular zone’s garbage. In order to win the bid, they would have to agree to high labor standards and increased recycling rates. The plan would also require carters to be more efficient by driving to nearby transfer stations, rather than ones where they may have a deal with the owner or prefer for another reason. The benefit to carters would be a long-term contract for the zones, potentially for upwards of 10 years, as compared to the short-term deals they have with clients now.
A similar plan was unsuccessfully proposed by the administration of Mayor David Dinkins in 1992. This latest campaign has already been met with resistance by the private carting industry and will likely be a long fight.
“I haven’t even accepted the premise that there are too many trucks on the road,” says Steven Changaris, Northeast regional manager of the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA).
Tom Toscano, chair of the NWRA’s New York chapter and chief financial officer for Mr. T Carting, agrees. He estimates that out of the 250 registered carters, only 80 to 90 companies are currently picking up commercial solid waste in a maximum of 1,500 trucks.
Under an existing City Council law, private carters are already required to update their trucks to meet 2007 EPA emission standards by 2019.
Toscano attributes the variation in routes and amount of carters per block to serving the needs of the customer. While an office building can be picked up earlier in the night, a restaurant or bar may not be ready until early morning hours. He says that by limiting customers’ options, and putting more restrictions on carters, prices could go up.
“Doing franchising to be ‘green,’ to reduce truck traffic, is going to cost the customer more,” he says. “Whatever the city mandates we’ll follow, but people have to understand that there’s a cost involved.”
Toscano says that garbage trucks are only a small part of the city’s larger truck fleet and feels the extra attention they receive stems from outdated perceptions.
“There’s something to garbage trucks that evokes an emotion. I don’t understand it. I think it’s a tie back to the old Italian Mafia guys. Those days are long gone.”
New York’s private carting system has been a contentious subject for decades. Beginning at least in the 1950s, the industry was controlled by organized crime families. As a result, prices were often inflated and new competition was met with very strong discouragement. Mayor Rudy Giuliani eventually cracked down on companies affiliated with organized crime and put different systems in place. In 1996, what is now called the Business Integrity Commission (BIC) was established to regulate the industry’s rates and practices.
While BIC plays a large role in approving or denying business licenses, DSNY oversees waste standards and the Department of Transportation regulates vehicle safety. None of these agencies are directly responsible for enforcing labor standards. This makes for a confusing mix of oversight, which some commercial garbage workers say lets issues slip through the cracks.
Fight among unions
Union representatives say the industry does have some good companies, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. The two most prominent unions are Teamsters Local 813 and Laborers Local Union 108, though a number of other independent unions have been growing in recent years. These smaller unions often draw criticism for what representatives of Local 813 and Local 108 see as too much cooperation with employers.
Mike Hellstrom, business manager for Local 108, led a campaign against one of these unions—United Service Workers Union Local 339—to organize at Mr. T Carting. Local 339 won by a narrow margin, but Hellstrom says it was never a fair fight.
“It’s hard enough when you go up against a boss one on one. That’s a hard road to plow. When you go up against the boss and the independent union, now you’re fighting two armies with one arm behind your back,” he says.
Kevin Barry, a business agent for Local 339, refutes these claims of illegitimacy. He says that his members have strong contracts and are part of an organization with 35,000 members in the tri-state area.
“For a not legitimate union we have an awful lot of members,” he says.
Tom Toscano says that his employees at Mr. T Carting get paid well, with good benefits, and are better off than they were with past unions such as Local 813. He thinks the TDT campaign is an effort by Local 813 to regain more control of the industry.
“Every employer fights tooth and nail to stay out of 813 and their ranks have diminished. As they say in football, this is the Hail Mary pass,” he says.
Alex Moore, communications director for Teamsters Joint Council 16, would not share membership figures but strongly disagrees with Toscano’s claims.
“The industry is mostly non-union and that’s why the wages are low and that’s why safety standards are so low,” he says. “Teamsters Local 813 and Laborers Local 108 are the only two real unions in this industry.”
Union politics aside, drivers and helpers for private carting companies have tough jobs under even the best circumstances.
Allan Henry, a labor organizer for Teamsters Local 813, worked in the industry for 28 years and says that he believes conditions have gotten worse. He says that crews are expected to complete routes with anywhere from 200 to 700 stops around the city in one night.
“You have a route that you know you can’t get done following the law,” says Henry.
He remembers driving more than 100 miles per shift on multiple occasions and feeling obligated to run red lights to keep on schedule. He says some companies only pay by the shift, regardless of how long the route takes, and those that pay hourly get upset when they think crews are taking too long.
On top of that, he says, workers are often put in unsafe situations. Unlike municipal sanitation trucks, which are maintained by the city and regularly updated, private trucks have less oversight. Workers have reported that it’s not uncommon for brakes to fail, the steps that they stand on to be rusted out or the truck’s compactor to malfunction.
A 2013 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed waste collection as one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Non-unionized workers have to file safety complaints with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), which has limited resources. According to a 2014 report by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), OSHA only has 71 inspectors for the entire state. “That’s for millions of workers, potentially hundreds of thousands of businesses, which are eligible to be monitored by OSHA,” says Charlene Obernauer, executive director of NYCOSH.
Unlike the well-paid sanitation workers at DSNY, private sanitation workers often earn lower wages to work in similar or worse conditions. At the lowest end, truck helpers make the state minimum wage of $8.75 per hour and truck drivers make $18 per hour. Rates for both positions are higher for unionized employees. Truck drivers make more whether they’re unions members or not because a commercial driver’s license is required.
Advocates say that higher labor standards could be achieved as part of a zoning system, but not everyone is sold on the idea.
“This is not one simple fix,” says Hellstrom of Local 108.
Hellstrom says that companies who lose bids in a potential zoning system would have to lay off workers. Instead of taking that approach, he says that wages could be raised with separate City Council legislation and pointed to BIC standards as part of the problem. The agency sets caps on what carters can charge customers—$18.27 per cubic yard or $11.98 per hundred pounds—but no minimum amount.
“That induces low-road contractors to start to breed because they’re more about the profits than the workers,” he says.
At the April 29 hearing, city officials recognized that change might be necessary but cautioned against drastic action.
“Whatever choices we make will have far-reaching and dramatic consequences. While we cannot allow the magnitude of this task to paralyze us into inaction, we must be responsible and careful in making our decisions,” said BIC Commissioner Dan Brownell.
BIC recently announced that it will be conducting a study in partnership with NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress to better understand how a zoning proposal would affect the private carting industry. Brownell said that it would be completed within six to nine months at the earliest.
Labor advocates point to other cities, such as Seattle and San Jose, where zoning systems have been implemented as proof that it can be done in New York. These cities have seen increased recycling rates, though also had much smaller private carting industries to tame. Los Angeles is in the process of assessing bids from 15 companies for a total of 11 different zones. By comparison, DSNY divides its five borough collection into 59 districts.
Hays Witt helps organize waste-related campaigns for a community organizing group called the Partnership for Working Families and says that any new program has to be comprehensive if change is going to happen.
“You can’t tinker around the edges. You really need to go bold to get all the benefits that cities are after,” he says.
Changaris, of the NWRA, says that while his members don’t agree with a zoning solution, they’re open to any change that will improve service for their customers.
“Most people swear by their hauler, not at their hauler,” he says. “We’re not the problem. I really think we can be part of the solution.”
Council Member Reynoso said more hearings will be scheduled throughout the year and that legislation is an option. According to the OneNYC report, DSNY will also begin looking at ways to streamline commercial recycling standards.
In the meantime, commercial waste will still be collected every night by a wide-ranging fleet of trucks and labor organizers like Allan Henry will continue waging their campaign.
“We gotta fight,” says Henry, “because this is a serious injustice that’s going on.”
With research assistance by Liridona Duraku.