Shrinking Garbage Truck Traffic


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  • Photo: Peter Burka, via flickr



Op-Ed

By Councilman MARK LEVINE

I hear all the time from constituents about garbage truck traffic in our community. So I was unsurprised when a new study last month confirmed what many of us have experienced: Upper Manhattan has one of the highest levels of private sanitation traffic in the city. A simple change could make a world of difference.

The study, commissioned by the Department of Sanitation, finds that the private sanitation industry is needlessly adding millions of miles of truck traffic to our streets and diesel exhaust to our air. The de Blasio administration announced plans to reduce this traffic by two-thirds — and even more in Manhattan — through a new waste zone system that will ensure only one private sanitation company is operating in each neighborhood, rather than dozens.

Rationalizing this industry has been a long time coming. Unlike residential trash, which is picked up by one Department of Sanitation truck stopping at every building on the block, small business owners have to find their own private trash company. Each company brings its own truck to pick up trash from one business, and our community is left to deal with increased traffic and pollution.

The new system will also protect small businesses by requiring sanitation companies to bid for the right to collect in each zone. Currently, small businesses pay a whopping 38 percent more than big business to get their trash picked up. When other cities have moved to this “waste zone system,” they have seen prices go down for most customers. The new system has also empowered these other cities to achieve commercial recycling rates three times higher than New York.

Workers would fare better as well. Not only is sanitation one of the nation’s most dangerous jobs, but the Sanitation Department report found that companies pay many of these workers off the books, so they don’t have the protection of workers compensation when they get hurt. The mayor’s plan would set wage and safety standards to protect commercial sanitation workers.

The waste zone plan has already garnered a lot of support. I have joined with other council members from across the city to endorse the new system. It also has the backing of a diverse coalition of labor unions, environmental justice organizations, small businesses, and community groups.

It’s not easy cleaning up after eight million people and our city has long struggled with sanitation issues. Many thought we had fixed the problem when we closed Fresh Kills Landfill, but the truth is we just moved the problem to the South Bronx, North Brooklyn, and other low-income communities where private waste transfer stations set up shop.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, the Sanitation Department began construction of new, state-of-the-art waste transfer stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens to more fairly share the trash burden around the city. Mayor de Blasio is continuing that work, and taking the next step by addressing commercial trash too. I hope that these reforms can ensure that commercial trash, just like residential trash, will no longer be dumped on just a few communities.

This is not a “Not In My Backyard” issue. We will always have trash, but if we dedicate ourselves to expanding recycling, supporting the workers who work in sanitation, and distributing the trucks and facilities in a smart and fair way, we can have a sanitation system that we are proud of. It will be complicated to remake this system, but I know my community is ready to get to work.

Mark D. Levine is a New York City councilman representing Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, Morningside Heights, Manhattan Valley, and the Upper West Side


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