NYC passes Commercial Waste Zones bill
New York City Council Member Antonio Reynoso speaks at a rally before the passage of the city's Commercial Waste Zones bill Oct. 30.
Photo courtesy of Transform Don't Trash NYC Coalition.

NYC passes Commercial Waste Zones bill

The controversial bill will establish at least 20 different zones and designate a select number of private waste haulers to serve each zone.

November 1, 2019

After more than six years of planning, the New York City Council has passed the Commercial Waste Zones bill (Intro 1574) that would create at least 20 different zones and designate a select number of private waste haulers to provide services in each. 

The Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition says the  new policy will reform the city’s existing private trash hauling industry while raising the sector’s transparency, accountability and quality of service to small businesses. Opponents, however, say the bill may lead to a near-monopoly in the industry that could put dozens of private carters in danger of losing their business.

The legislation was sponsored by Council Member Antonio Reynoso and passed Oct. 30. 

"We are making private sanitation a good job again," says Sean T. Campbell, president of Teamsters Local 813 and member of the Transform Don’t Trash coalition. "For years, private sanitation workers have testified at city council hearings and protested in the streets for legislation to hold their employers accountable. That legislation is finally being voted on today. Commercial waste zones will overhaul private sanitation to reward the good companies and force the bad companies to shape up. We thank Council Member Reynoso and [City Council] Speaker [Corey] Johnson for their leadership."

The legislation will create a competitive bid to assign private carters to collect waste in each commercial district, cutting private garbage truck traffic by more than half across the city, according to New York’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Private carters will need to meet baseline standards to be eligible for a zone and their proposals will be judged based on their plans to improve safety, recycling, pollution and job quality. The bill caps the number of private carters in any zone at three. 

The carters will be chosen through a competitive bidding process starting early next year with a request for proposals. Contracts are set to be awarded in 2021, according to a roadmap of the plan released by DSNY last year.

The coalition says on top of provisions limiting the amount of private waste haulers on the road, the bill also contains worker protections, a rate floor, standards at waste facilities and stronger requirements for low-polluting waste trucks. Sanitation companies will be required to provide every worker with extensive safety training. A rate floor will prevent companies from financing irresponsibly low fees by underpaying workers.

Under the policy, carters will also be incentivized to transition their fleets to zero-emission trucks and use facilities that meet safety and health standards. The city will also be able to incentivize designated haulers to make critical investments in modern recycling, composting and transfer station infrastructure.

"This legislation will bring common sense to New York City’s waste carting system. Fewer vehicle miles traveled by private waste haulers — who have been among the deadliest drivers on our streets — means a safer city for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers alike. Transportation Alternatives is grateful to Council Member Reynoso, Speaker Johnson, the bill’s cosponsors and our fellow advocates for their work toward winning a safer New York for everyone," says Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an organization that advocates for safer means of transportation besides cars.

DSNY says more than 90 private carting companies currently operate throughout the city. New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management Inc. (NYRWM), however, disputes that number, claiming it is outdated and industry consolidation has brought the number closer to 35.

The industry handles more than 12,000 tons of waste per night, or more than 4 million tons of solid waste annually, says NYRWM. One block can see over a hundred private garbage trucks in a single night, according to Transform Don’t Trash NYC. NYRWM says the industry employs more than 3,000 people.

New York’s private carting industry has been involved in several controversial reports and allegations throughout the years, eventually spurring the government oversight. Since 2010, more than two dozen residents have died in traffic crashes involving private sanitation trucks. Transform Don’t Trash NYC adds that media investigations have found labor abuses including wage theft, long shifts, dangerous working conditions and excessive injuries.

The Transform Don’t Trash NYC campaign launched in 2013, calling on the city to adopt commercial waste zones and address the abuses present in the private carting industry.

“For the past six years, our coalition of workers, environmental justice community members and advocates have worked to make the ambitious, transformative policy of a commercial waste zone system the law of New York City," says Rachel Spector, the environmental justice program director at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. "We anticipate seeing wide-ranging benefits for all New Yorkers, including reduction of waste trucks on our streets, safer streets, cleaner air, as well as major climate emissions reductions from improved recycling, composting and waste reduction. We look forward to working to ensure that this transformative law truly reaches the potential it has to bring more sustainability and equity to our city.”

The bill has been controversial over the years, as private hauling businesses worry “dozens of companies could be forced out of business,” according to a website urging the public to petition city council’s passage of the bill. Other grievances include businesses losing choices, potential price spikes, a lack of competition resulting in reduced service quality and the creation of a city-controlled bureaucracy.

Kendall Christiansen, the executive director of NYRWM, says the bill exaggerates the potential benefits of the industry overhaul. For example, he says the industry's fleet of 500 packer trucks makes up less than 0.1 percent of total trucks operating in the city everyday, creating minimal impact on the environment.

Christiansen adds that three of the four largest unions representing the industry's employees—Local 108 of the Mason Tenders, Local 339 of IUJAT and Local 890 of LYFE—have all expressed opposition to the bill.  

NYRWM often cites a similar plan in Los Angeles, which has 11 waste zones and has run into issues since its initiation in 2016. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2018 that complaints poured in from the public about soaring prices and poor customer service. One council member reportedly called the program “nothing short of a hot mess.”

"Today’s city council vote ... without a single public hearing insures that 'private carter' will be replaced by 'DSNY Franchisee' as the city takes over full responsibility for the commercial waste system, which handles 12,000 tons of waste, recyclables and organics every night," Christiansen says. "We are more than disappointed that this misguided law will destroy dozens of local companies, many with 50 years or more of service and displace hundreds of workers (mostly people of color and many second-chance making good money for hard and thankless work).  Just like when Los Angeles eliminated competition as the basis for this essential service, no choice, price increases and declining service will become very real to New York’s businesses and industries, with questionable environmental benefits."

The National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA) has been outspoken about its opposition to the bill in the past.

“As we move from the legislative process to implementation and administration of the new commercial waste zone collection system that was opposed by NWRA, many unresolved issues remain,” says Steve Changaris, vice president of NWRA’s Northeast region, in a statement. “We will continue to engage with the city as it moves from the existing private competitive commercial waste collection system toward its new governmentally controlled zone collection system for commercial waste. 

Yet, proponents argue that the new bill will create safer conditions for both workers and the public. Before the bill was approved, a diverse group of people gathered outside the city council meeting to rally for its passage.

“After I was run over by the driver of a private carting truck in 2009, I spent six weeks in a medically induced coma, underwent 21 surgeries, including the amputation of my left leg at the hip level, two months in the ICU and over a year of rigorous rehabilitation. If this commercial waste zone legislation had been in effect at the time, my crash may have been prevented. This bill is a chance to make our city safer for us all,” said Jed McGiffin, a member of Families for Safe Streets, during the rally, according to a statement from the Transform Don’t Trash coalition. “I’m confident this vote will prevent future catastrophic injuries on the streets of our city.”