Change has never come easily to this city’s dirtiest industry. In the early nineties, a Houston-based waste-management company called Browning-Ferris decided to expand into New York City. The Times reported that the company hosted a press conference on the steps of City Hall and sponsored the 1993 New York City Marathon. It even won a lucrative contract to collect trash from Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. But the local garbage industry was still firmly under mafia control. One morning, according to “Garbage Land: On The Secret Trail of Trash,” by Elizabeth Royte, a Browning-Ferris executive’s wife awoke to find the head of a dead German shepherd on her suburban lawn. A note stuffed in the dog’s mouth read, “Welcome to New York.”
New York City has a crowded system for collecting businesses’ garbage. In San Francisco, a single waste hauler has an exclusive contract to collect trash. Seattle is divided into four waste-collection zones, handled by two garbage companies. Los Angeles is transitioning to a system in which eleven districts will be serviced by one hauler each. These cities have government-regulated commercial-waste systems. Philadelphia uses a free-market system, as does New York, in which private haulers negotiate directly with businesses. Still, it has only about fifteen commercial-waste haulers; Chicago and Houston, also free-market cities, have fourteen and a hundred and forty-one, respectively. More than two hundred and fifty licensed commercial-waste haulers operate in New York.
When I recently walked down a four-block stretch of Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I identified about forty businesses—restaurants, clothing shops, bodegas, banks. Licenses in windows listed the commercial-waste haulers they use—at least fourteen in all, by my count, for a stretch that covers only a fifth of a mile. If there was a pattern, I couldn’t grasp it: the Starbucks at Ninety-third and Broadway uses a different commercial-waste company from the Starbucks at Ninety-fifth and Broadway.
Benjamin Miller, a former director of policy planning for the Department of Sanitation (and the author of “Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, the Last Two Hundred Years”), told me this is rooted in the New York garbage world’s mafia past. The commercial-waste industry was traditionally lucrative and not very transparent, so it was an attractive venue for organized crime. In 2001, the city created the Organized Crime Control Commission, which was later renamed the Business Integrity Commission (BIC), to promote competition and discourage criminal control of the commercial-waste industry. The commission set maximum garbage-collection rates to prevent extortion, and launched other anti-corruption initiatives. It worked, more or less: the mafia no longer dominates commercial waste, and the booming number of haulers kept options plentiful—and trash-collection fees low—for businesses around town.
But those efforts had an unintended consequence: in an already congested city, unrestricted competition has coaxed a whole lot of garbage trucks onto the streets—more than four thousand. Trucks crisscross each other, often several times a night, as they drive overlapping routes around town. Besides adding to traffic, this can be bad for the environment and public health. Diesel pollution poses a cancer risk, and is associated with asthma and chronic bronchitis. The black carbon in diesel exhaust contributes to climate change. Garbage trucks can be a hazard for pedestrians and cyclists, and a 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that the fatal injury rate among waste workers was more than eight times the average for all professions.
In October, the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), a union-backed, non-profit advocacy group, proposed that the local government organize the city into a to-be-determined number of commercial-waste zones, and that it invite trash collectors to bid for all the businesses in each zone. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration “is reviewing the proposal,” a spokesman told me. The Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a non-profit that studies local-government finances, is developing a second franchise proposal, which CBC’s consulting research director, Charles Brecher, told me will likely be released this spring.
Environmentalists and labor activists say that a franchise system, similar to models in Los Angeles, Seattle, and elsewhere, would lower the number of garbage trucks on the road, minimize mileage, and eliminate route overlaps. ALIGN’s report claims that New York City’s residential-waste system—which is publicly run, by the Department of Sanitation—is five times more efficient than the private commercial-waste providers. A franchise system could also force waste haulers to meet increased environmental and labor standards in order to participate, like recycling more and lowering their trucks’ emissions.
“Today, New York’s commercial-waste industry is the Wild West,” Matt Ryan, the executive director of ALIGN, said. “We have all these different companies competing for business on the same blocks. It obviously keeps costs low, but it drives down wages and safety standards for workers.”
Franchise opponents such as the National Waste & Recycling Association argue that commercial hauling requires a much more customized collection service than residential waste does—which makes ALIGN’s comparison misleading. A restaurant might want its trash picked up after a late closing time; a small clothing boutique might need its garbage hauled only twice a week. They also argue that a government-run franchise would eliminate competition, once a hauler wins control of a zone, sending trash-collection rates higher. If the new scheme reduces the number of haulers in New York, as is intended, bigger operations could have an advantage over smaller ones.
“We built up our customer base naturally, by going door to door,” Thomas N. Toscano, the chief financial officer for Mr. T Carting Corp., told me. The company, founded by Toscano’s grandfather and family-owned for three generations, has twenty-eight garbage trucks and about eighty employees. “If they force us into a franchise scheme, we’ll have to bid against very large, multinational corporations,” Toscano said.
The cost-benefit analysis depends on your priorities. A franchise system would be more environmentally friendly, but could increase costs for the businesses that pay to get their trash collected. One L.A. County study charted a slight rate increase after transitioning to franchise collection; another, in San Jose, found that rates rose for some customers and fell for others.
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