New York City

Reform NYC private sanitation without a zone system

Zoned franchises for waste management in New York City harms customer service. Other approaches can improve safety.

A big yellow private sanitation truck driving through the streets of Manhattan.

A big yellow private sanitation truck driving through the streets of Manhattan. Oliver Foerstner/Shutterstock

New York City’s commercial waste industry needs serious reform. New Yorkers have seen too many media reports about incidents that put workers and the public at risk. More must also be done to reduce the industry’s significant contributions to air pollution and climate change.

So it is no surprise that city officials have prioritized the issues of worker safety and environmental impact as part of their work to improve the industry – and they are right to do so.

However, those reforms must be done sensibly. In this case, the city Department of Sanitation erred by proposing to reform commercial waste carting through a franchising plan that would restructure the industry under a network of waste collection zones over the next several years.

Public policy solutions work best when they immediately and effectively address the matter at hand and avoid unintentional consequences. The sanitation department’s franchising proposal must be rejected because it fails this simple test.

When a similar zone-based franchising plan was implemented last year in Los Angeles, customers registered more than 28,000 missed service complaints, with complaints increasing each month in the program’s first six months. Worse yet, customers saw their bills rise even as haulers did not pick up the trash – in many cases, bills doubled, customers were wrongly overcharged alongside the appearance of nebulous new fees. All of this is a function of the end of free market competition.

But what happened in LA was predictable. Well-intentioned but misinformed city officials, seeking to improve a sprawling industry, decided to scrap the entire system and replace it with a series of mini-monopolies chosen and licensed by the government. In the end, the zones brought new problems – higher costs, worse service and a general state of disarray.

To date, DSNY has paid lip service to what went wrong in Los Angeles by tweaking its franchising proposal to include multiple waste haulers per zone, rather than just one company. Curiously, this will neither reduce truck congestion nor lessen the environmental impact – one of the articulated goals of the commercial waste zones.

The city’s proposal leaves many questions unanswered and simply hasn’t been tested anywhere in the country; it is thus difficult to see the wisdom in rolling out an untested system in the nation’s most complex market.

More than 20 years ago, the city made critical reforms to the commercial waste industry through the creation of the Business Integrity Commission. Its role should not only be continued but expanded. Given the size and scope of today’s industry, city officials need more tools at their disposal to enforce the law and take action when needed.

Bad actors need to be held accountable and workers need to be properly trained. This starts by requiring the reporting of more safety-related data that the city can use to determine whether companies are cutting corners and, if they are, suspend or refuse to renew their operating licenses.

If a company is mistreating workers or putting them on the road without necessary training, the city should be equipped with the information it needs to require that company to get its act together or risk being shut down.

With regard to environmental impact and reducing carbon emissions, city officials should require waste carting companies to optimize their routes and reduce the number of miles traveled by their trucks on a nightly basis. The city can do this, among other things, by changing regulations around waste carting contract requirements – and this can be done more quickly and effectively than any similar effort under a franchising plan.

The common denominator between these ideas is that they are achievable through simple measures to strengthen rules and create more transparency and accountability.

As the discussion around commercial waste carting continues in the City Council, we hope lawmakers will do their duty to reform this industry while remembering their responsibility to do no harm. Even as the sanitation department continues to push its flawed proposal, there is nothing stopping the council from choosing the more sensible path forward.

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