by Cole Rosengren
As midnight approaches, commercial garbage trucks rule the streets of New York. On a Thursday night in Lower Manhattan, trucks from five different companies can be spotted within as many blocks. Workers hang off the back on a marathon ride to pick up New York’s unwanted debris. The sun will be up all too soon and they have hundreds of stops to go.
The Department of Sanitation (DSNY) doesn’t pick up commercial waste, permitting a parallel—but very dissimilar—system to operate. Every night of the week, potentially thousands of trucks from different private carting companies crisscross the five boroughs. They go where the money takes them and have ever-changing stops at varying times of night, with shifts that often last 10 hours or more. Clients range from laundromats with a couple light bags to restaurants with dense, leaky piles to office buildings with mountains of garbage.
This variation in routes and material collected has led to increasing questions about the system’s efficiency and effectiveness.
“The commercial waste system is a disaster and they’re the only ones in denial,” says Antonio Reynoso, chair of the City Council’s sanitation committee.
Statistics in the shadows
A campaign called Transform Don’t Trash (TDT) aims to reform the system. Led by the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the campaign has been publishing reports and holding rallies to bring more attention to the industry.
Because the private carting companies report statistics about their operations to a variety of government agencies—not all of it publicly available—getting a full picture of the commercial waste system is difficult.
More than 250 private carting companies hold approved trade waste removal licenses with the city. Yet this list also includes companies that pick up construction and demolition waste, cooking grease, scrap metal and other items. A commonly cited 2013 study by an environmental consulting firm said there were 4,281 licensed trucks collecting commercial waste and recyclables at the time. That also included grease tankers, box trucks and other types of trucks.
Estimates about the amount of miles driven by commercial trucks are also unreliable. Based on even the most conservative figures they still travel about twice as many miles per year as DSNY trucks to collect a similar amount of waste.