TRASH TALK: Advocates Warn Against Further Delays on Commercial Waste Zones

Elected officials and activists take a hard line with the Sanitation Department in advance of hearings.

Above, a private carting truck that lacks protective side rails. The city's historical deal on commercial waste zones will mandate the rails — if it ever gets off the ground. Photo: Facebook
Above, a private carting truck that lacks protective side rails. The city's historical deal on commercial waste zones will mandate the rails — if it ever gets off the ground. Photo: Facebook

They don’t trust them as far as they can throw them.

Elected officials and advocates are demanding that the Adams Administration moves forward quickly to implement the commercial waste zones established by a 2019 law — a call that comes one month after the private carting industry persuaded the Department of Sanitation to delay a crucial deadline.

Advocates from transform Don’t Trash NYC, Families for Safe Streets Transportation Alternatives and others made their ire known at a rally City Hall on Friday before a Sanitation Committee hearing about the department’s progress. Members of the committee and advocates are miffed that DSNY had given the industry a three-month extension, to July 15, in which to comply with a request for documents on pricing and other features — seeing the delay as a bad sign of things to come, especially after the pandemic and lobbying by the industry caused the delay.

“Three years ago, New York City passed the historic Commercial Waste Zones Law aimed at implementing a safer, healthier, and more efficient commercial waste collection system throughout the five boroughs — and it’s long overdue for implementation,” Council Member Sandy Nurse, the chairwoman of the Sanitation Committee, said in a statement. “Our communities cannot afford any more delays.”

The commercial waste zones are an important  — and hard won — reform. Each night, some 90 private carters employ overworked, sometimes underskilled and often underpaid workers to drive hundreds of miles around town picking up and moving around trash from the city’s 100,000 businesses to private transfer stations and recycling facilities around the region — an unregulated system that prizes speed over safety. (Over the past several years, reckless commercial haulers have killed more than two dozen people, both carting workers and other road users.) The companies’ circuitous and overlapping routes also cause excessive pollution.

In 2019, the city struck a historic deal to improve safety in the industry, creating 20 commercial waste zones in which only a small number of carters would be allowed to operate — the goal being to reduce the cut-throat competition. The deal was opposed by the industry, but it also included a requirement that the companies install life-saving side guards on their 10,000-pound and up trucks by 2024 — a safety feature that keeps pedestrians and cyclists from falling under the huge vehicles’ rear wheels. Before the pact, slightly more than 15 percent of the more than 6,000 heavy-duty trucks had such low-tech, easy-to-use guards.

“If there is any silver lining to my story of being run over by a dump truck, being in a coma, having a full leg amputation, residual nerve damage and unending medical bills, it is that even if I cannot return to my former career as a nurse in a cancer center, I can use my voice and visible disability to prevent more harm,” said Families for Safe Streets member Lauren Pine, who was dragged by a sanitation truck in 2017. “For the New Yorkers like myself who have been injured, killed, or are routinely threatened by these trucks, commercial waste zone reform can not come fast enough.”

At the hearing, the Sanitation Department was repped by Deputy Commissioner Gregory Anderson (new agency Commissioner Jessica Tisch was given a pass from attending on her 10th day on the job). Anderson portrayed the delayed deadline as a glitch made necessary by the department’s tough technical requirements for the 50 companies that will participate. He sang the praises of the commercial waste zones, testifying that the new system would reduce commercial waste truck traffic by more than half by cutting millions of miles of truck travel from every neighborhood, leading to less air pollution. He also promised that the new system would “nearly double the commercial diversion rate for recyclables and organic waste.”

Tisch is expected to testify at hearings on Mayor Adams’s executive budget next month.

“This administration and our new commissioner are laser-focused on achieving the sustainability, safety, and other goals of this program while also ensuring we create a system that works for all New York City businesses, including the small businesses that are vital to our city’s economic recovery,” Anderson said. “It is important that we build a system that provides these businesses high quality service with transparent and affordable pricing.”

Anderson said that DSNY had made rules designating the boundaries of the 20 zones and establishing standards of “customer service, recycling and organics, operational requirements within zones, safety and training, waste generation audits, and an administrative fee.” Future rules will establish reporting and record-keeping requirements and the transition dates for each zone.

DSNY’s new Bureau of Commercial Waste is hiring outreach staff, technical experts, and contract administrators — as well as 10 Sanitation cops to police the CWZs, which are expected to phase in over two years, starting in 2023. (The agency already has scores of cops.)

Spokesman Vincent Gragnani said DSNY “remains committed to the full implementation of commercial waste reform. We believed, based on the effects of the pandemic, the complexity of the process and the feedback we heard, that an extension of the RFP deadline was warranted. We are committed to the July 15 deadline … and we look forward to full implementation of the law and the benefits this law will bring to our roads and to our air.”

In another garbage development, the Council also wants to kickstart residential composting as a way to achieve the city’s waste-reduction goals — especially after Mayor Adams cut funds for a scheduled expansion of the city’s pilot program. On Thursday, Nurse and several other members introduced a package of bills that would:

  • mandate universal residential composting by the end of 2023 for almost every building
  • require drop-off sites for organics in all community districts allow for the collection of recyclable materials such as electronics, textiles, and other materials that can’t be disposed of in the general waste stream under state law
  • mandate that DSNY report on its progress toward sending zero waste to landfills and that  the administration to meet  the city’s zero waste goals by 2030.