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It’s Time to Transform NYC’s Trash

Check out the guest blog below from our colleagues in the Environmental Justice program here at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and from the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN).  Low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately bear the burden of environmentally hazardous industries and exposure. Environmental discrimination has broad implications for the health of these communities, as evidenced by high rates of asthma in heavily polluted areas such as the South Bronx. The piece below looks at the issue of waste management in New York City and calls for a policy change that would make NYC communities cleaner and healthier.

By Justin Wood and Maya Pinto of the Transform Don’t Trash NY Coalition

Thanks to new programs from New York City’s Department of Sanitation, many New Yorkers are beginning to recycle and compost more of the trash we generate in our homes and apartments.

But have you ever wondered what happens to the trash you throw out at work, or what happens to food scraps every time you eat a meal at a restaurant?  NYC businesses generate a staggering 5.5 million tons of garbage per year – and almost 75% of it ends up buried in landfills or burned in incinerators.[1]

Not only do these outmoded disposal practices contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions; our giant, chaotic, and inefficient private-sector waste system also contributes to chronic health crises for thousands of New Yorkers.

1)  Inefficient collection means thousands of unnecessary trucks on our streets and pollution in our communities.

Our commercial and restaurant waste is picked up by any of over 230 private haulers, which operate more than 4,000 trucks in NYC.  Because these companies constantly compete for customers, they operate inefficient, overlapping truck routes and send unnecessary diesel emissions into our air – releasing dozens of nasty pollutants linked to premature deaths, heart attacks, asthma, and other serious ailments.  Commercial garbage truck drivers face pressure to complete their collection routes each night as quickly as possible – leading many to engage in speeding, illegal turns, and reverse moves on one-way streets, endangering pedestrians and cyclists.[2]  In fact, better regulation of commercial waste trucks may be essential to achieving the safe streets called for in the mayor’s new Vision Zero plan: studies have found that, per mile, commercial garbage trucks cause more cyclist fatalities than any other vehicle.

2)  Our waste is disproportionately handled in low-income communities and communities of color. 

The vast majority of NYC waste is carted by heavy collection trucks to transfer stations before ultimately being hauled away from the transfer stations in still more trucks.  The majority of these transfer facilities are located in just three outer-borough neighborhoods – the South Bronx, North Brooklyn, and Jamaica, Queens – which are home to more than half a million people, most of whom are low-income and of color, and many of whom suffer from elevated rates of asthma and other chronic health problems.

“Waste-to-Energy” Incinerators also emit greenhouse gases and toxins such as dioxin and mercury, which are associated with cancer and other health impacts common to overburdened communities.  Hundreds of thousands of tons of NYC waste are trucked to an incineration plant in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, which is burdened by  a high rate of childhood asthma.

3)  Workers Face Serious Health Hazards   

The solid waste industry is among the deadliest in the nation for workers, and waste workers face daily hazards like exposure to poisons, toxins, rodents, infectious diseases, and diesel fumes.

While collecting garbage is inherently difficult, dirty work, not all workers are treated equally.  City workers collecting waste from residences have good health benefits, union representation, and pension plans.  In contrast, private hauler workers who collect waste from offices, restaurants, and other businesses suffer from an under-regulated “race to the bottom” in which wage and safety standards are sacrificed for the bottom line.  Moreover, commercial waste workers are disproportionately people of color who earn significantly less than their white counterparts.[3]

The Solution:  Transform Don’t Trash NYC!

Thankfully, our city has the opportunity to set policies that solve these problems.  The City can enact high-road labor and environmental standards and establish accountability mechanisms in the commercial waste industry by adopting an approach to solid waste management that is increasingly being used in cities across the country.

Cities including Los Angeles, San Jose, and Seattle have adopted innovative approaches to waste management in which haulers submit bids for the exclusive right to collect waste in geographic zones designated by the city.  Haulers are selected based on factors such as fair prices for customers, the hauler’s ability to meet city recycling goals, and commitment to fair wages and health benefits for workers.

The results are promising: San Jose has seen its business recycling and composting rates jump rapidly from 23% to 71% after choosing an innovative hauling company to collect all commercial waste.  Los Angeles just adopted similar legislation and anticipates that its new system will greatly boost recycling and composting rates while reducing inefficient truck routes throughout the city.

If New York City follows suit, we could eliminate over 5 million diesel truck miles every year on our streets, improve the health and wellness of our most vulnerable residents, prevent 2.5 million tons of waste per year from being landfilled or incinerated, and create over 15,000 quality local jobs by recycling our commercial waste into useful products.

You can show your support for a healthier, cleaner, and greener NYC by joining our online campaign today!


[1]Recent data from an unpublished study commissioned by DSNY (acquired by TDTNY through a FOIL request) show that our commercial waste problem is worse than previously understood.  NYC previously estimated commercial waste generation at 3 million tons per year with a 31% recycling/diversion rate.  New estimates are 5.1 million TPY with only a 26% diversion rate.  Source:  Halcrow Engineers, “New York City Comprehensive Commercial Waste System Analysis and Study,” submitted August, 2012.

[2] After directly observing more than 125 different NYC blocks at night, DSNY’s consultants find that these illegal time-saving maneuvers were common.  Source:  “New York City Comprehensive Commercial Waste System Analysis and Study,” p. 3-15.

[3] EEO tabulations of Census data analyzed by ALIGN show that while 12% of white workers in the waste industry earn less than $35,000/year, a majority of Latino workers and 75% of non-citizen workers earn less than $35,000/year. See Transform Don’t Trash NYC p. 12.

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