New York City

Trash talk

Waste Equity passed. But the looming fight over commercial waste pickup zones is about to get nasty.

A man riding on the back of a garbage truck

A man riding on the back of a garbage truck Aldas/Shutterstock

The Teamsters had a lot to celebrate on July 18. The New York City Council was finally passing the Waste Equity bill, 12 years after it was introduced. Members of Teamsters Joint Council 16, a downstate branch of the international labor union, filled City Hall steps for the customary victory rally to celebrate the bill that’s meant to lower the cap on trash trucked in and out of certain overburdened neighborhoods. The workers were joined by activists from the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. City Councilmen Carlos Menchaca, Donovan Richards and Keith Powers spoke. Their colleague, City Council Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee Chairman Antonio Reynoso, played master of ceremonies as the lead sponsor of the bill.

The opposition was nowhere to be seen. This particular fight was over for the private carting industry, which is made up of companies that haul and process the waste created by businesses in the city. But a battle was still being waged on another front, one that will make the decadelong fight over waste equity look insignificant. This larger battle is over a zoned franchising system for trash haulers, which could impose stricter regulations on an industry that’s enjoyed lax oversight for years. The players on both sides of that fight, supporters and opposition, are largely the same as the players in the waste equity fight, and the bill’s passage may belie the outcome of the debate over zones.

“Passing the Waste Equity bill was the introduction to the waste commercial franchising,” Reynoso told City & State. “If we couldn’t get waste equity done, there was no way we were going to get waste franchising done.”

“I wasn’t surprised ... I knew that the industry was going to figure out a way to push a half-ass legislation.” – Antonio Reynoso, New York City councilman

Despite what people say about Staten Island, it’s no longer a trash dump. That means all the trash in New York City has to leave the five boroughs. But it all makes a stop before it’s packed and shipped out at one of the city’s many waste transfer stations: the airport terminals of trash’s flight out of town. These transfer stations are smelly and dirty and endure a continuous stream of heavy trucks in and out. The majority of these bad neighbors are located in just three areas of the city, North Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Southeast Queens. The Waste Equity bill was a small step to rectify this, lowering the cap on trash allowed at existing transfer stations in those three low-income, majority-minority neighborhoods. It’s meant to encourage the spread of transfer stations to other neighborhoods, but with moderate limits and generous exceptions for recycled waste, even the bill’s sponsor admitted it won’t have that much of an effect.

“The Waste Equity bill is low-hanging fruit, small potatoes reform,” Reynoso said. “It isn’t going to revolutionize the way we handle trash in the city of New York. … There’s so little that I believe is actually happening with this bill. What it’s doing is incentivizing good players.”

That doesn’t mean it passed easily. The same bill was killed at the end of the 2017 session, just as it had been four years earlier. Operators of waste transfer stations in the targeted areas opposed the bill, fearing the loss of business. One such company, Sanitation Salvage Corp., paid the prominent consulting firm MirRam Group $120,000 over the past two years to lobby against the bill, according to reports filed with the City Clerk’s office. When the bill finally passed in July, it earned 13 “no” votes – a rarity in a body that usually passes bills by wide margins.

“Quite honestly, I’m glad the bill got passed – I think it should have gone a little further. But it’s all about compromise,” Teamsters Local 813 President Sean Campbell said.

In an interview with City & State, Campbell talked about wanting to support union members who lived in the overburdened districts, but his attacks on the transfer stations’ management suggested the Teamsters’ support may have been more driven by their antipathy toward the waste companies. The Waste Equity bill isn’t expected to create any jobs, and may actually cost some commercial waste workers in the Teamsters union their jobs.

Because of this, Campbell and the Teamsters were attacked for their support of the Waste Equity bill, most notably from Pat Purcell, executive director of the Greater New York Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, a union-management coalition in the construction industry, who called the Teamsters’ support “shameful and deplorable,” and compared the union to anti-union consultants.

“(The Teamsters) are an embarrassment to the labor movement and remind us all that the labor movement faces threats not only from the outside world but from within its own house,” Purcell said in a statement.

But Campbell, who is black, said he was focused on putting stronger safety regulations on the companies that employ his members in the sanitation industry, who are largely people of color.

“These owners don’t give a damn about minority employees. They exploit them to no end, especially people who may have had a (criminal) record or something like that,” he said. “The bottom line is their bottom line. That’s it. Nothing more.”


Here are the big bills regarding waste pickup proposed and passed in New York City.

A private waste collection truck in New York City's Times Square.
Kazanovski Andrii/Shutterstock

Waste Equity bill

Intro. 157-2018 (Previously, Intro. 495-2014; Intro. 1170-2013; Intro. 103-2006)
Status: Awaiting the mayor’s signature
Sponsor: Antonio Reynoso
Major co-sponsors: Stephen Levin, Rafael Salamanca Jr., Diana Ayala
Purpose: Reduce permitted capacity at solid waste transfer stations in certain overburdened community districts in the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens
Major Supporters: Teamsters Joint Council 16; New York City Environmental Justice Alliance; New York Lawyers for the Public Interest; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Major Opposition: New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management; Laborers Local Union 108

BIC oversight and regulation bill

Intro. 996-2018
Status: In committee
Sponsor: Robert Cornegy Jr.
Major co-sponsors: Mark Gjonaj, Barry Grodenchik
Purpose: Expand and clarify the city Business Integrity Commission’s oversight and regulation of the private waste carting industry
Major Supporters: New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management; Laborers Local Union 108; Real Estate Board of New York; NAACP
Major Opposition: Teamsters Joint Council 16; ALIGN; New York City Environmental Justice Alliance; New York City Business Integrity Commission; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

Commercial Waste Zone bill

Status: Not yet introduced
Sponsor: Antonio Reynoso
Major co-sponsors: None
Purpose: Institute a zoned commercial waste franchise system in New York City to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled by private waste trucks and increase oversight of the industry
Major Supporters: Teamsters Joint Council 16; ALIGN; New York City Environmental Justice Alliance; New York City Business Integrity Commission; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Major Opposition: New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management; Laborers Local Union 108; Real Estate Board of New York; NAACP

This alleged worker exploitation has been well-documented, most recently in a series of bombshellarticles by investigative reporter Kiera Feldman. Workers put in over 14-hour days, six days a week, hustling to finish twisting and turning routes as long as 85 miles. Three workers lost fingers from a piece of faulty equipment on a truck. Such injuries are common: Commercial waste is one of the most dangerous industries in the country and sanitation trucks killed seven people in New York City last year, according city figures cited by Streetsblog.

But advocates think that a waste zone plan could address those long hours and unsafe conditions.

While the New York City Department of Sanitation picks up all the residential waste in the city, all commercial businesses, from massive office buildings to the corner bodega, are on their own. To get their trash picked up, they contract with one of several hundred private carting companies. Competition is fierce, which keeps businesses happy with low prices, but it also leads to companies cutting corners on safety. The agency directed with regulating the industry, the New York City Business Integrity Commission, has done little to rein it in – though there’s disagreement over whether that’s the result of weak leadership or weak laws.

For more than two years, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Sanitation Department has been holding discussions while developing a plan to institute commercial waste zones. All sides are involved in the discussions, including commercial trade groups, the private carters themselves and the BIC, which would be strengthened under the plan.

“The city needs to radically restructure this industry. For efficiency, safety and environmental concerns,” BIC Chairman Dan Brownell said in a statement.

New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia told City & State she expects the plan to be released publicly before mid-September, but the general outline is already known. The current permitting system, which limits the amount of oversight the city has over private waste carters, would be replaced with a franchising system. The city would be split up into a yet-to-be-determined number of geographic zones where a limited number of carters would be able to pick up businesses’ trash. So instead of every waste hauler competing for the trash of every company in the whole city, the haulers would be competing, primarily, for city franchise agreements. These agreements would also allow the city to incentivize preferred behavior among the carters – companies with poor track records on worker safety or companies that drive old trucks with high emissions would have a hard time getting contracts.

With the imminent release of the waste zone plan, the long-simmering debate is boiling over. Soon after the Sanitation Department publishes the plan, Reynoso intends to introduce a bill in the City Council to enact it into law.

“These owners don’t give a damn about minority employees. The bottom line is their bottom line. That’s it. Nothing more.” – Sean Campbell, Teamsters Local 813 president

But a counterbill has already been introduced by New York City Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr. that would impose safety and environmental reforms on the carters while blocking the implementation of a zoned system, which many opponents say would result in businesses paying more for trash pickup.

“We realize that creating zones is not going to solve the problems that are pervasive in the industry. But it will undermine small businesses’ ability to operate and cost jobs,” Cornegy told City & State. The bill was written in consultation with many of the commercial interests that would be affected by any changes to the system, and they’ve already expressed support, writing a July letter urging the de Blasio administration to drop the zoned plan and support Cornegy’s bill.

Cornegy was open about his distaste for zones. “We’re pretty passionate about stopping any disproportionate effects that a zoned plan would have,” he said. But he also argued that his bill would be a faster way to regulate the industry, instead of jumping into a protracted fight over Reynoso’s bill, which has yet to be written.

“It’s not pre-empting (Reynoso’s bill), it’s actually doing what we as a government should do, which is act with some sense of urgency and expediency around the issues that we know are disproportionately affecting particular segments of our society – and sanitation is one of them,” he said.

But Cornegy’s bill has been beset by criticism since he introduced it in June, much of it aimed at City Councilman Mark Gjonaj’s financial ties to the private sanitation industry. Gjonaj, the bill’s co-sponsor, has received more than $16,000 in campaign contributions from industry players since 2012.

In a July interview with Crain’s New York Business, Gjonaj said he backed the bill on its merits. “I am not swayed by relationships, or by people that I know,” Gjonaj said.

Still, Reynoso accused Gjonaj and Cornegy of being bought and sold by the industry, and called the bill weak.

“I wasn’t surprised that a bill like this was on its way. I knew that the industry was going to figure out a way to try to push what I consider a half-ass legislation,” he said. “Mark Gjonaj is Mark Gjonaj. I don’t want to say much about a colleague, but the ProPublica article speaks of who he is to the industry. And then Robert Cornegy in the past has been a council member that has looked out for the interests of business and industry over workers.”

Campbell had similar criticism. “To me, Cornegy’s bill is putting a Band-Aid – not even a Band-Aid. It’s an attempt again to do the employer’s job. To me, that’s what he’s doing. He’s working for the employer,” Campbell said.

The de Blasio administration has firmly taken Reynoso’s side in the dispute, committing to working with the sanitation committee chairman once a bill is introduced. Garcia said Cornegy’s bill would change very little about the industry, and she isn’t supportive.

“It is not something that I can see being useful in any particular way,” she said of Intro. 996. “I don’t think it’s helpful at all in making this industry more efficient or safer or improving labor standards.”

Still, Cornegy was confident his bill would gain traction, citing the number of outside supporters that back his bill because they fear a zoned system, including the Real Estate Board of New York, waste workers union Laborers Local Union 108 and New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management,a coalition of private sanitation companies. The bill only has three sponsors – Cornegy, Gjonaj and Queens City Councilman Barry Grodenchik – but Cornegy thinks he’ll gain more when members hear from small businesses in their districts.

Reynoso was successful in winning votes for his controversial Waste Equity bill. Now he’ll have to convince them to trust him once again and back his waste reform bill over Cornegy’s –even if it hasn’t been introduced yet.

“So it’s a fight,” Reynoso said. “And I’m ready for it. I’m excited about it.”