Skip to Content
Fresh Hell

Contracts, Complexity, and ‘Obsessive Fear’: Commercial Waste Zones Are Stalled Until 2025

NYC will remain a putrescible Wild West for a few more years.

(Dan Nguyen / Flickr)

New York City's commercial waste racket will remain a putrescible Wild West until at least 2025.

The current system of private carting in the Big Onion encourages a race to the bottom: busted up trucks belching toxic fumes careen all over town with underpaid and overworked employees hanging off the back. Dozens of New Yorkers—pedestrians, cyclists, workers—have been killed by the operators of these trucks. The industry, which handles all commercial, not residential, waste (around 20 million pounds each day), is regulated by a City agency created explicitly to stamp out its strong, historical ties to organized crime.

In 2019, the City Council passed a monumental law dividing the city into 20 separate commercial waste zones, each with as many as three private carting companies doing business under 10-year contracts. These changes would cut carbon emissions from the trucks by 40 to 60 percent, and the number of miles the trucks travel by 50 percent—some 18 million fewer miles annually.

The law did not include an implementation date, but the de Blasio administration claimed this new, highly regulated system would be online by 2023. 

At a joint City Council Sanitation and Small Business Committee hearing on Wednesday morning, DSNY Commissioner Jessica Tisch called that timeline "wildly unrealistic," and said that the first zone, a pilot, won't roll out until the second half of 2024, almost certainly ensuring that the rest of the zones won't go online until 2025. 

Tisch insisted that her updated timeline was correct, considering the large volume of bids (34 are currently in consideration, down from 50 at the start of the process), the complexity of setting up the system itself, and what she categorized as an "obsessive fear" that the zones would spell major price hikes for small businesses. 

"I need to make sure that I am being as thoughtful in my job as the lawmakers were who wrote the legislation," Tisch said. "And the only way that I can be thoughtful in my job is by worrying about the existential threats to the program, among them: not having a failed procurement, not having this thing brought down by litigation, and price increases on our 100,000 businesses in New York City that have been through a lot recently." 

Brooklyn Councilmember Jennifer Gutiérrez noted that perhaps Tisch's fears are "not rooted in a whole lot at this point," given that the commissioner had no data or proof to suggest that prices would skyrocket.

"If it's not real, if it's not rooted in anything that's happened here yet, and the bill goes out of its way to delineate how to avoid that, it's an opportunity to maybe be more aggressive," Gutiérrez suggested.

Commercial waste prices have been going up in the city, but it is still one of the cheapest places in the country to take out the trash. Last year, the Business Integrity Commission, which oversees the private carting industry, raised the cap on how much carting companies can charge customers by 16 percent, to address inflation and supply chain cost increases. A DSNY study from 2019 showed that carters would ultimately save money because the new system is more efficient, though trash patterns have changed now that lots of people no longer need to be in Midtown Manhattan every day for work. Some businesses could see savings as well under the new regime: 90 percent of them currently pay a flat rate for waste removal, no matter how much they generate, and 61 percent don't even have a proper contract with their hauler, according to stats announced at the top of the hearing.

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, who as a councilmember wrote and passed the commercial waste zone law in 2019, told his old legislative body that it was too early to declare that zone prices would increase, and even if they did, customers—and New Yorkers—would benefit.

"The reason businesses were paying low amounts was because [carting companies] weren't paying workers, workers weren't wearing safety vests or had to buy their own safety vests. Workers were getting paid off the books, workers were dying and companies weren't acknowledging it. Trucks had no brakes," Reynoso said. "That's why prices were low. This legislation is specifically aimed to start addressing all those issues. And that doesn't come for free."

But if there's one group of people who can apparently do more with less, it's the mayor's commissioners, who are forced to implement his vision while enacting his budget cuts at the same time. Not only does Tisch's DSNY have to pick up residential trash every day, they have to simultaneously implement commercial waste zones and an extremely ambitious citywide curbside organics initiative.

"You've got a preliminary budget cut called for six percent across the board, including vacancies. DSNY has 98 vacant positions," Sanitation Committee Chair Sandy Nurse told the commissioner. "So given these two massive projects, you feel confident that you will be able to execute both of these programs with the resources that you have?"

"I do," Tisch replied. "We got this."

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Give us your email address to keep reading two more articles for free

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Hell Gate

Shame Upon New York City: Kawaski Trawick’s Killers to Face No Discipline

Five years after police killed Trawick, the NYPD announced there will be no consequences in a late-Friday news dump

April 12, 2024

Vampire Weekend at Their Most Serious and Least Fun

The youthful mischief, the pangs of heartbreak that punctuated them, they're only memories here.

April 12, 2024

And the Winner of Hell Gate’s 2024 March Madness of Hot Takes Is…

You'll never look at someone clipping their nails on the subway the same way.

Steal a Boat in Your Mind and Sail Away on This Playlist

And read these links while you're out there, if you have service.

April 12, 2024
See all posts