Overhauling New York City’s Commercial Waste Industry

While New York City’s municipal sanitation workers collect residential waste and recycling from our curbsides by day, private carting companies are responsible for collecting from commercial properties at night.

About 80 private waste haulers operate within the city and there are no restrictions on their routes. This mean businesses on the same block may use different waste carters, creating redundancy and traffic congestion.  For example, in a 5 block section of Manhattan, 27 waste companies stop at 86 businesses.

Garbage trucks run on diesel fuel which contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions in the city. Aside from the pollution and congestion, there are also truck maintenance and safety issues associated with the private carting system that need to be mitigated as well.  The unsafe working conditions that waste haulers experience include faulty brakes, long overnight shifts, and equipment malfunctions that cause chronic injuries. These unsafe conditions have resulted in high accident rates, and two fatalities so far this year.

Community advocacy groups began raising awareness of these concerns in late 2013.  They started a public engagement campaign that called for better protection of commercial waste workers, stricter waste reduction goals, and enforced recycling standards.  

To combat these environmental, health, and safety issues within the commercial waste industry, in 2015 city policymakers began tackling this issue as part of Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC plan. Then in 2016, the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and the Business Integrity Commissioner released a study of the city’s private waste industry.

The study explored the possibility of dividing the city into several commercial waste zones with a similar number of businesses in each zone and assigning a few specific carters to each zone. Such a system could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 65% and reduce truck traffic associated with commercial waste collection by up to 70%. Additionally, the study found that a zone system would potentially decrease the air pollutants that lead to asthma and other health problems by nearly 60%.

DSNY unveiled a plan last week to divide the city into 20 commercial waste collection zones with three to five carting companies assigned to each zone, which would achieve a 60% reduction in the number of vehicle miles traveled. The plan would require a description of the environmental impact of creating these zones, including data on the decrease in pollution. With 68 available slots, private carters would have to compete for a contract assigning them to a zone. The plan includes price regulations through the contract bidding system that would help minimize significant cost increases.  Stricter safety and working condition requirements and strong recycling goals will also be part of the contract bidding system. The City Council is working on legislation to codify this plan into law.

A decrease in truck congestion and improved recycling practices will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the city.

Commercial waste zoning is not a new idea. Other cities have set similar zone systems in place. The city of Los Angeles implemented a zoning program last year known as RecycLA. The city was divided into 11 zones with a single waste management company assigned to each zone. The franchise contracts will last for ten years and the companies chosen are required to supply separate compost, recycling, and garbage bins. The city hopes to increase recycling rates to 100% by 2050 and divert 1 million tons of waste from landfills each year.

While there have been some complaints about increased prices due to Los Angeles’ new exclusive zoning system, DSNY’s plan includes regulations for pricing and at least three carting companies assigned to each zone in order to help minimize potential price increases.

Due to the differing opinions of several business stakeholder groups, this initiative has not progressed quickly. Critics claim that the zones will significantly drive up costs for businesses, negatively impact customer service, push out smaller carters as well as put employees out of work and overall ruin the free market system currently in place. They believe that it is possible to regulate the industry without a zoning system and an alternative bill has been proposed.

Some City Council Members are working legislatively on a different plan which would allow for the Business Integrity Commission to regulate commercial waste management companies that have repeatedly violated safety practices. Their plan would prohibit the city from implementing commercial waste zones. The legislation would require commercial waste haulers to conduct annual safety trainings, establish licensing standards, regulate allowable emission levels, and encourage more efficient collection routes. These measures aim to maintain competition between waste haulers. It is unclear how the emissions reductions and air quality improvements would be achieved.

NYLCV supports the concept of commercial waste zones in New York City and will continue to work with key community and legislative stakeholders to accomplish this goal.