The coalition found that New York City businesses produce 5.5 million tons of waste per year—two million more tons than the most recent official estimate. Of those 5.5 million tons, 4 million are "disposed" (read: sent to the landfill or incinerated), rather than recycled. And while Bloomberg's 2011 PLaNYC report set the city's recycling rate by offices, restaurants, stores, hotels, and hospitals at a less-than-great 40%, TDTNYC estimates that the actual percentage is closer to 24%.
If not worse. Annual reports foiled with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation show that last year, two of the biggest private waste haulers in the city recycled just 9% and 13% of their waste, respectively.
TDTNYC obtained these troubling new statistics from a previously-unpublished study of commercial waste management in New York City, conducted back in 2012 by Halcrow Engineers, and commissioned by the DSNY. The study was not released until TDTNYC submitted a Freedom of Information Law request this year.
However, a DSNY spokeswoman told us this afternoon that the report was withheld because it was incomplete. "In 2012, DSNY retained an engineering firm to conduct a survey of commercial waste generation and collection in New York City. Unfortunately, that study was cut short as a result of budget cuts, and the engineering team was only able to create a waste generation model based on generation rates in other states, whose circumstances are very different from those in New York City."
Further, "In the last year, an in-house team of analysts at DSNY has adapted the methodology from the draft engineering report to better fit New York City's unique characteristics. That summary report will be released in conjunction with the PlaNYC update later this week."
A spokeswoman for ALIGN: The Alliance for a Greater New York, an organization that is part of TDTNYC, was pleased to hear that DSNY was conducting further research. Still, she held firm: "We believe that there was a study that was mandated by 2012 that was complete, and that's what we foiled for."
According to today's report, which assumes accuracy and completeness on the part of Halcrow, thousands of private waste-collecting trucks overlap routes in NYC: in 2012, at least 25 independent trash haulers worked each neighborhood, and a whopping 79 just in Midtown. As a result, the city was faced with unnecessary "pollution, noise, congestion and hazards of excessive truck traffic."
Setting the 2012 study aside, TDTNYC supplemented these findings with a 2014 survey of 580 businesses across the five boroughs. Their findings suggest that the situation today is not so hot:
Our survey revealed individual blocks in several neighborhoods where collection trucks from 8-10 different hauling companies serviced businesses, and one multi-block commercial strip serviced by 22 different hauling companies. The constant struggle to gain and retain customers leads haulers to operate inefficient routes.
For example, a typical team of two workers operating a truck might collect waste from 70 different restaurants in one night. While a dense customer base would allow these workers to fill their trucks from restaurants in a single neighborhood, in NYC’s open system these workers are likely to drive across multiple neighborhoods and even boroughs to collect the same amount of waste from the same number of restaurants.
Plinio Cruz of Teamsters Local 813 has been a sanitation truck driver for the past 10 years, for Progressive Waste Solutions. Recently, he's been focusing his efforts on organizing for the union. Reached by phone, he told us:
"Some people have called the private sanitation system a Wild West, and more or less that's what it is. When you're out there at night, you can be on any particular street and see ten different companies at the same time picking up for different customers. You have people coming up all the way from Brooklyn or Queens to the Bronx or Manhattan to collect, and then going all the way back to drop garbage. If you have companies in the Bronx, why does someone from Staten Island have to come to the Bronx to pick up trash?"
Cruz has also witnessed considerable shortcomings in the industry when it comes to separating out recycling:
"There are some places where you see that the customer did the diligence and separated the cans in one bag and the cardboard over there, and the solid waste in those black bags. The customer separates the recyclables, but then you're told to put everything in one truck, and what are you going to do? You're just an employee. So whatever the customer did didn't serve any purpose because everything is going to be mixed. And when you get to the transfer station, the truck dumps everything over here, and they just scoop it up with a loader and it goes to a landfill or an incinerator, and that's even worse."
Cruz believes that a zoning system, which would confine private waste management companies to geographic areas, would at least address the traffic issues, and cut back on unnecessary gas guzzling. In today's report TDTNYC suggests that private companies might compete for these zones. "In order to win the right to serve a commercial zone," the report states, "companies would need to meet ambitious environmental targets, maintain high-road labor standards, and... divert recyclables and organic waste from landfills and incinerators."
The New York City Council Sanitation Committee is holding a public hearing at City Hall on April 29th to discuss these issues with TDTNYC, industry workers, and small business owners.