NYLJ Publishes NYLPI Op-Ed on Landmark Commercial Waste Zone BillNovember 8, 2019
New York Law Journal
New Trash Policy Will Be Transformative
By Melissa Iachan and Rachel Spector | November 07, 2019
New York City Council has voted to enact a transformative policy that will reshape the way the city handles commercial waste.
The new Commercial Waste Zones law (Intro 1574-A of 2019) is a model for tailored local policy that will bring New York City’s outdated waste system into the 21st century, with greater protections for workers, environmental justice communities, small businesses, pedestrians and cyclists.
This effort and outcome illustrate the power of community lawyers to convene multidisciplinary stakeholders and advocates, as well as government officials, to develop and implement practical and equity-focused policy. The new law is a product of six years of advocacy led by a coalition of labor, green groups, street safety advocates, environmental justice groups and community members.
The industry’s transgressions from a safety, workers’ rights, and environmental perspective have been well documented. In New York City’s current open market commercial waste system, more than 20 different trucks might collect trash on a single block on any given night because businesses contract individually with haulers without restriction.
This system has fueled a race to the bottom in which carting companies haven’t upgraded their fleets to 2007 emissions standards; underpay and overwork drivers; cause cyclist, pedestrian and worker fatalities; neglect to recycle or compost waste; and continue to truck a majority of the city’s commercial waste to just four communities of color.
The Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY) comprehensively studied the industry and solicited input from the industry and commercial waste generators, resulting in the proposed system-wide changes, which lined up with what NYLPI and coalition partners had been advocating for this past half decade.
Under the new system, DSNY will designate at least 20 geographically rational zones with a comparable number of businesses in each. The city will assign and contract with up to three private haulers for each zone, allowing them to collect waste within that zone.
Haulers will submit proposals to DSNY for the right to collect waste within each zone and DSNY will make selections based on criteria core to new law’s legislative purpose—improving efficiency, sustainability, street safety and customer service in the industry. The criteria includes customer pricing, waste diversion and safety plans, and plans to upgrade to zero emissions trucks. DSNY and the haulers will enter into enforceable contracts to ensure they are recycling, meeting high customer service standards, complying with applicable local, state and federal laws, and other rigorous requirements.
The policy can serve as a model for legislation that addresses multiple critical issues—climate change, environmental justice, workers’ rights and public safety—at once. Streets will be safer for pedestrians and cyclists alike because of the millions of truck traffic miles this policy eliminates. By both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing diversion from waste headed to landfills, this new law also promises to significantly reduce our city’s climate change impact and carbon footprint.
Residents of environmental justice communities will literally breathe easier because the new system will reduce the number of polluting trucks that crowd the neighborhoods where many truck-based transfer stations exist in North Brooklyn, the South Bronx, Southeast Queens and Sunset Park.
Small business owners will also benefit. A 2016 DSNY study revealed that, on average, small businesses pay more than $4 more per ton for waste collection than large businesses. Further, most small businesses currently don’t have written contracts with haulers, don’t know what they pay per ton and end up paying a flat fee no matter how much waste they produce, and have little recourse for poor service. If the hauler fails to pick up their waste, the business pays the fine for leaving it on the sidewalk. The new system promises to change all this.
Finally, private sanitation workers will be better off. The law requires DSNY to consider compliance with existing safety and worker protection laws when selecting haulers to service the zones. It also includes heightened safety training requirements for haulers. Rational trash truck routes within a zone will replace the current inefficient, multi-borough routes that many private sanitation workers currently have to speed through every night to accomplish their work. The new law also ensures better pay and accountability by requiring that cash be taken out of this industry and mandating rigorous disclosure of workforce and employees. It also protects employees who may be displaced by the new system and includes worker retention provisions.
The new Commercial Waste Zones Law should be a model for other cities and even states as they seek to make the large-scale changes necessary to address climate change, economic inequality, and evolving street safety for the 21st century—the defining challenges of our time.
Melissa Iachan Esq. and Rachel Spector Esq., are attorneys in NYLPI’s Environmental Justice Program.
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