Crain’s New York
April 1, 2016
One of the most powerful tools available to the average New Yorker to fight climate change is to recycle all that we can. We are proud of what we’ve accomplished with recycling in our homes, even if more progress is needed. But almost everyone is unsure about what businesses are doing about recycling. We don’t even know what recycling goals businesses are supposed to meet. In fact, the business operators themselves don’t always know. And who is enforcing recycling rules in this sector?
Most business trash is recyclable, much more so than household waste. Yet office buildings throw out tons of what is almost entirely reusable paper, while restaurants, bars and hotels do likewise with the same glass, plastic and metal containers we recycle at home. A recent study by the engineering and research firm Halcrow determined that the commercial waste stream is almost 90% recyclable, yet just 24% of this waste stream is recycled.
The days of landfilling being the cheap “solution” are long over. No landfills are left in New York City, and exporting waste to them is expensive. Moreover, landfills are dirty. They are a major source of greenhouse gases, with the methane they emit being the primary culprit—it is 25 to 30 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. The single most environmentally damaging thing we can do with garbage is landfill it, especially if we have to haul it many miles by diesel truck.
The city has set a goal of diverting 90% of our waste from landfills by 2030, but we will not achieve this unless we get a handle on the commercial waste stream, which comprises about half of New York City’s waste.
Our current commercial waste handling practices have additional environmental issues. One that most New Yorkers are keenly aware of is the huge population of waste and recycling trucks crisscrossing each other’s routes all night, spewing diesel fumes, making noise, and creating hazards for pedestrians in our communities. Refuse trucks get only about two miles per gallon of diesel. There could hardly be a clearer target for reducing air pollution (and climate impact) than to reduce this traffic.
Currently, about 4,200 trucks are licensed in New York City to serve commercial-waste customers, and it seems that every retail or business establishment on a block gets its own truck visiting each night. In fact, this is very often the case: A block with 10 businesses might get 10 different trucks coming by each night to pick up trash. And the truck routes begin and end in just a few New York City neighborhoods, usually those already burdened with industrial and other polluting facilities.
However, according to common sense and the experience of other cities, this complex problem has a realistic and viable solution: a franchise system. Los Angeles, Seattle and some suburbs of Chicago have implemented exclusive commercial franchises with lower prices, heavily discounted recycling, and reduced truck traffic. These areas have divided their map into zones and invited companies to bid for each entire zone, creating maximum efficiency and minimum truck mileage.
New York City is considering such a system for collecting and recycling business trash to cut down on redundant truck routes and improve recycling rates. Bidders for these zones could be evaluated not just on price, but on recycling practices, willingness to invest in state-of-the art recycling facilities, fair treatment of workers, and overall environmental and community impact. To win and keep rights to the zone, an operator would be required to run the lowest-polluting trucks available and to meet recycling goals set by the city—an overall goal of 70% recycling would be a good starting point for the commercial-waste operators.
New York City law has required businesses and private haulers to recycle paper, metal, plastic and glass for more than 20 years, but it has been almost impossible to enforce recycling rules for commercial waste with hundreds of carters serving 200,000 customers, leaving businesses and their employees confused about what they should do with recyclable waste. With a much smaller number of carefully selected, responsible carters and approved routes to licensed and competent recycling depots, tackling and enforcing recycling would become feasible for the first time.
New York has begun a long process of rationalizing its waste practices and adjusting operations to improve environmental equity, and the city’s OneNYC environmental blueprint promises to expand and intensify these efforts. Preventing 80% of our waste from being sent to landfills would be a huge step in this direction. But it cannot be done without major changes in our commercial waste system.
New York City has been a leader in municipal greening in the US. Tackling commercial waste can be our next victory, and would extend our leadership in this new century.
Brendan Sexton, a former commissioner of the Department of Sanitation, is chairman of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board.