A four-month City Limits investigation looked at all aspects of the city's solid waste management system and found steep challenges at every turn. While de Blasio's OneNYC proposals identify many of these same issues, his ideas also open up many questions.

Adi Talwar

A four-month City Limits investigation looked at all aspects of the city's solid waste management system and found steep challenges at every turn. While de Blasio's OneNYC proposals identify many of these same issues, his ideas also open up many questions.

Many New Yorkers don’t know what happens to that coffee cup after they throw it away, but the ugly truth is slowly being revealed. Between recent hearings at City Hall, and a City Limits’ series on waste (“New York’s Trash Challenge“), our city is finally coming to grips with the staggering amount of waste we generate and how we choose to deal with it. Between our homes and businesses, we generate anywhere from 6 to 8 million tons of waste every year and because our recycling rates are woefully low, the great majority of that waste is needlessly buried in landfills or burned in incinerators outside of the city.

Within the city, business waste is collected by a multitude of hauling companies that drive older, dirtier trucks and converge on a handful of low-income communities and communities of color where waste facilities are clustered. The city’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) is addressing many issues within the city by siting new sanitation facilities in all five boroughs that will handle waste collected in adjacent communities and export it by barge and rail rather than long-haul truck. This will eliminate millions of diesel truck miles in New York City every year and provide long overdue relief for communities like North Brooklyn and the South Bronx.

Local NIMBY opponents of this progress complain it’s obsolete and unnecessary because of its focus on waste export rather than reduction and recycling. Only communities privileged enough not to deal with the dire public health and quality of life impacts of the current arrangement could make this claim. We need to dramatically produce less and recycle more waste, but even if we succeed in doing so, New York City will need export infrastructure for years to come. This infrastructure cannot continue to be solely located in low-income communities of color.

Moreover, City Limits understated the relief marine transfer stations will provide to overburdened communities – and the region at large – by routing commercial waste through them. City Limits assumed that tipping fees – the money paid by waste haulers to ‘tip’ their load at a facility, will be higher at the marine transfer stations and thus private haulers will not use them. Marine transfer station tipping fees are not pre-determined. They will be whatever city officials set them at and city officials have consistently expressed their commitment to attracting commercial carters by making these fees competitive. Attracting commercial waste to marine transfer stations gives the city an opportunity to generate new revenue.

Transform Don’t Trash NYC, a broad-based coalition to which I belong, recently issued a report on the commercial waste sector that covered many of the issues reported on by City Limits (“Dirty Wasteful and Unsustainable: The Urgent Need to Reform New York City’s Commercial Waste System“). Our report, based on unpublished city studies and original research, found that by nearly every relevant criterion, New York City’s commercial waste industry is failing. Recycling rates are 25 percent, significantly below the national average and a third of what leading cities achieve. The great majority of businesses pay a flat rate for waste collection, giving them no incentive to reduce the amount of waste they create or recycle what they dispose. Too often, when small businesses do take the time to separate their cans and bottles, private sanitation companies send those recyclables to the landfill anyway.

The industry is sprawling and grossly inefficient. Every New York City business independently contracts with one of the hundreds of licensed haulers for its waste collection, so dirty diesel trucks drive long and overlapping truck routes throughout the city. A 2012 study commissioned by the city found collection trucks from 79 different companies operating in Midtown and no less than 25 companies operating in each of the community districts they evaluated, including less dense outer-borough areas. Our own street-level survey found as many as 22 different companies operating on a single commercial strip. Despite this, Steven Changaris of the National Waste & Recycling Association, an industry trade group, told City Limits, “I haven’t even accepted the premise that there are too many trucks on the road.”

Another consequence of the sprawling, unwieldy nature of New York City’s commercial waste industry is that city officials lack a basic understanding of what happens in it on a day-to-day basis – how much garbage is generated, how much is recycled, and to where it’s trucked. Worker exploitation is not uncommon is this chaotic system, including unsafe working conditions, poverty-level wages, and uncompensated overtime. At a recent City Council hearing, two brave private sanitation workers testified about the indignities to which they were subjected on the job and were promptly given termination notices (and subsequently rehired after blowback from our coalition and members of the City Council).

While Changaris, the industry representative, calls for patience with the glacial pace of progress (“I really want people to take the long view. …We used to take waste and just put it in a hole in the ground”), our coalition is advancing a proven policy approach to address these urgent issues – exclusive collection zones. Under such a system, the city would divide each borough into collection zones and have haulers competitively bid for the exclusive right to collect business waste within each of them for a set number of years. Successful haulers would get the tremendous value of a sizable, dense and stable customer base, and in return the city can negotiate fair rates for small businesses, strong commitments on waste reduction and recycling, and good working conditions and wages.

Under such a system, the city could implement a “save-as-you-throw” pricing structure for businesses. Unlike the flat rate prices ubiquitous in the system today, businesses would be charged by the amount of waste they throw away, creating a waste reduction incentive that has proven successful elsewhere. Prices could also vary by whether waste is set out for disposal or recycling, with discounts for recycling motivating business to keep recyclables out of landfills and incinerators.

Another significant benefit of this approach is that it can spur much-needed investment in infrastructure for recyclables and organics. As City Limits reported, a 2013 law that would require certain businesses to recycle their food waste may be implemented on a limited scale due to a lack infrastructure in the region to handle it. On the other hand, we’ve consistently heard from industry actors that such infrastructure will only get financed and built when there is a guaranteed stream of materials to supply it.

An exclusive collection zone system offers a clear path out this chicken-or-egg dilemma. With sufficiently long collection contracts, haulers can reasonably be expected to provide such infrastructure or partner with companies that will and the city can use its negotiating leverage to ensure that these facilities are fairly sited. San Jose recently moved from a system like ours to an exclusive zone system and saw their recycling rates jump from 20 percent to 70 percent within a couple of years.

Increased recycling is not only important for environmental reasons, it also has tremendous potential for economic development. Moving from our “put it in a hole in the ground” approach, which generates relatively few jobs locally (or nationally), to a 70 percent recycling rate would create thousands of jobs in recycling facilities and has the potential for creating even more local jobs in industries that make use of the recovered materials.

In One NYC, the city’s long-term sustainability plan, Mayor De Blasio laid out a bold goal for New York City’s commercial waste – 90 percent diversion from landfills by 2030. This is a goal that we will never achieve under the current system. The Mayor also committed to evaluating the potential of an exclusive collection system to decrease truck traffic and elevate worker standards. The City Council has also recognized the tremendous potential of such an approach, with key members like Antonio Reynoso, Chair of the Council’s Sanitation Committee, voicing their support for it. City leaders’ increasing recognition of significant problems in the commercial waste sector creates a window of opportunity and the City Limits series was particularly timely.
New York should look to the tremendous progress that other major cities have seen through exclusive waste zones and create a new waste system that the Big Apple can be proud of.

The author is Director of the Environmental Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and a member of the Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition, which is working to reform New York City’s private sanitation industry.