On Commercial Waste, Don’t Do What L.A. Did


Every day, it’s no small miracle that the 12,000 tons of waste, recyclables and organics generated by the city’s businesses and industries are managed by a small, efficient and resourceful cadre of companies.

But in August 2016, the de Blasio administration proposed converting the city’s successful, open-market commercial waste pickup system, last reformed 20 years ago, into a system of geographic “zones” each served by a single company.

Like other “West Coast” ideas, this one needs a closer look. A similar system now being implemented in Los Angeles is proving to be a disaster: tens of thousands of service disruptions, prices to customers doubling, tripling and quadrupling—along with myriad extra charges. On top of that, complaints are now directed to city bureaucrats instead of service representatives eager to keep your business.

This week the Los Angeles City Council is demanding answers from city officials about what went wrong. Angry businesses have initiated a ballot referendum to repeal the new system. The LA Times editorial board called it a “trash monopoly that’s gouging customers” and said that city officials “need to fix it.”

Fortunately, New York can watch and learn before making the same mistake.

But so far, Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia continues to work behind closed doors towards a zone-based plan that would harm small businesses, threaten good jobs for local residents, and accomplish virtually nothing that couldn’t be achieved sooner, better and cheaper by working collaboratively with local companies.

Even the data used to justify the decision is flawed, incomplete and inaccurate; ask how many licensed companies currently provide waste-related services and you’ll hear answers ranging from 70 to 110. (The answer: closer to 70, with 20 providing more than 80% of the total service.)

Now is the time for real public discussion before lurching down the path of no return.

Los Angeles’ new system went live last July and seven companies now control waste and recyclables in 11 zones. Businesses—including apartment buildings—in those zones now have new haulers assigned to them without regard to their service requirements or cost. Imagine such a transition in New York. The results would be disastrous. Already heavily regulated and skilled at implementing the city’s commercial recycling rules, local companies have every incentive to operate efficiently.

Armed with a team of consultants and an $8 million taxpayer-funded budget, the de Blasio administration is committed to proving that it’s smarter than a well-regulated open market. It is already drawing lines on maps, deciding what constitutes good customer service and what arbitrary recycling goals should be enforced. It created an advisory board, but a request to open the meetings to the public was denied, and debate has been limited to how to design a zoned system—not whether it even makes sense.

To be clear: Every complex system—which waste services are—can benefit from continuous improvement, even in the face of collapsing global markets for recyclables, over-heated industrial real estate, and relentless NIMBYism. The commercial waste system already is undergoing significant and positive transformation with renewed focus on safety, clean trucks, zero waste, and managing organics as a resource. While elements are in place to move the industry forward into the 21st century, the city’s dispiriting message instead is: Get ready to shut down your companies and let the monopolies take over.

For the business community, the question is will Mayor Bill de Blasio learn from Los Angeles and change course? Or will that realization not come until it is too late?

Kendall Christiansen is executive director of New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, a trade organization representing 17 commercial carters in the city. Thomas Grech is president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.