New York Times endorses our waste reform bill on eve of vote

October 29, 2019

Environmental Justice, News, Transform Don't Trash NYC

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The New York Times editorial board has endorsed legislation negotiated with the Transform Don’t Trash NYC Coalition to overhaul the commercial sanitation industry through commercial waste zones.

The coalition, of which NYLPI is a member, launched in 2013, calling on the city to adopt commercial waste zones and address the rampant abuses of the private carting industry, and the updated commercial waste zone legislation is up for a vote in council tomorrow. Crain’s, New York’s business trade paper, also endorsed the measure last week.

The New York Times’ op-ed  is also available to read on the paper’s website:

Why New York Can’t Pick Up Its Trash

And what the City Council is about to do to change that.


The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.

Oct. 29, 2019, 8:29 p.m. ET

How bad is New York’s trash nightmare? So bad that, back in 2013, officials frantic to subdue the growing rat population attempted to slip the rodents birth control. But without a little seasoning, they wouldn’t touch it. Raised on New Yorkers’ rich and putrefying leavings, the rats knew they had more delectable options available to them. Researchers added flavor to the drugs to tempt the fattening critters to bite before romancing one another.

“Ultimately it ended up being something like cannoli cream,” said Joseph Lhota, the former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “It worked a little bit. Until they wised up.”

For the most part, residential garbage collection is fairly efficient. It’s overseen by a tightly regulated city agency with rules to protect workers and pedestrians. The big problem is with trash from businesses, which is handled by the private garbage industry.

Commercial sanitation is like the Wild West, at least if you can imagine the Wild West as a fetid dump. Unlike many major cities, New York has no extensive system of alleyways. New Yorkers plop torn and overflowing bags of banana peels and coffee grounds and meat scraps directly in front of their businesses. Garbage trucks from an estimated 90 companies weave through the five boroughs, according to a report from the city first published in 2016 that formed the basis for proposed reforms. The system is, the report concluded, “inefficient, unsafe and unsustainable. It is broken.”

New York’s trash nightmare is a model failure of the free market. Commercial sanitation workers contend with dangerous conditions for low pay, and wage theft is rampant. Many routes on this race to the bottom can take upward of 12 hours and cover more than 100 miles, the city report found. By contrast, the longest route of a city sanitation worker is about nine miles, according to city officials, though it often features more stops per mile.

All the inefficient carting routes compound New York’s pollution problem. They add to greenhouse gas emissions and ground-level pollutants that can exacerbate asthma and have been linked to other health problems. On some city blocks, garbage trucks pass by some 400 times every day, according to the city study.

In their haste, the private trucks regularly flout traffic rules. Since 2010, trucks belonging to private carters have killed 28 people — pedestrians, cyclists and sanitation workers. They have injured many more. City sanitation trucks killed seven people during the same period.

On Wednesday, the City Council is likely to enact a new system for handling commercial trash, which is half the city’s waste. High time.

The legislation would create a system of 20 commercial trash zones, with businesses within each zone able to choose from one of three private carters. The city would determine the eligible private carters through competitive bidding.

The reforms have broad support. The sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, deserves praise for leading the reorganization. Labor unions and environmental groups have pushed hard for the plan. It has also received support from unlikelier groups, like the Real Estate Board of New York, a powerful lobbying group, and the Partnership for New York City, a business group akin to a chamber of commerce.

Those groups back the plan because they see it for the opportunity that it is: a chance to make the city safer and healthier, a chance to renovate an industry that affects the quality of life of all 8.5 million people who live in New York.

“Trash management and disposal is a huge issue in society, and figuring out a smarter way to do it in a growing city like New York is a business priority,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City. “This plan is a smart way to handle the issue.”

The city has been at war with its trash since its founding. “There are accounts of Peter Stuyvesant being enraged at how sloppy the colonists were, even in the first decades of the 1600s,” said Robin Nagle, a professor at New York University, and the anthropologist-in-residence at the city’s Department of Sanitation.

Modern officials have had their own sanitation battles — some entirely predictable, others not. Until the mid-1990s, when prosecutors stepped in, the mafia exercised significant influence over the industry, increasing costs by up to 40 percent.

The plan before the Council this week won’t solve all sanitation problems, but it can help.

Daily traffic from private garbage trucks would be reduced by more than half, from more than 28 million miles per year to fewer than 11 million by 2024, when the plan is to be fully in effect, according to city officials.

The plan would also impose new rules to improve safety, labor practices and customer service.

There is still more the city can do to improve its own operations. The mayor, for example, promised to get composting underway throughout the city. That way, food waste can be composted instead of ending up in landfills, where it generates methane, a major contributor to climate change.

Opponents of the proposed commercial hauling system have said it would put some private carting companies out of business. But the industry’s terrible record on safety and labor practices, as well as its grimy environmental footprint, leaves the city with no choice but to act.

“If we have restaurants that are feeding people undercooked food and making them sick, they would go out of business,” said Councilman Antonio Reynoso, the bill’s sponsor. “This is why government exists.”

Death and trash are among life’s constants, and the City Council has a chance to do something about both. In one swoop, it can prevent accidental deaths, pick up the trash and make life better for the people who do this vital work.

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