Uprooting a Dangerous Industry: New York City’s Garbage Reform Explained

Miguel Mondesi has been a garbage worker in New York City for 22 years. He’s only 46, but he says everything hurts — his knees, his ankles, his hips.

The father of three starts his shift at 3 a.m. and works for the next 10 to 15 hours. In that time, he’ll make up to 1,500 stops, lifting and hurling onto his truck nearly 25 tons of trash.

“It’s killer,” he says. “It’s a killer.”

The private sanitation industry is broken in New York City, Mondesi, Teamsters union leaders and law advocates say. Businesses in the city are required to pay for a private carters to pick up their trash instead of the city’s sanitation department, which picks up for residential buildings and in a few other cases. Private carters, seeking to gain as many customers as possible, run routes that zig zag across the city, forcing drivers to work long hours and ignore stop signs and speed limits, putting themselves and citizens at risk.

The private garbage hauling industry has gone largely unregulated. But the New York City Department of Sanitation is working on a dramatic reform that would uproot the way trash is picked up the city.

The new framework is a start, union representatives and drivers like Mondesi say, but it could be even stronger. Some business owners, meanwhile, say the reform will make it harder to stay afloat.

The Reform

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The proposed system would designate 20 zones around the city where only five or fewer private haulers are allowed to pick up trash. Each hauler would have to submit a formal request to the city to compete for zones, detailing their compliance with labor laws, their environmental impact, the state of their trucks and equipment, among other things.

“Now people with more violations, that don’t have new trucks, that overwork their workers, are going to have a harder time gaining contracts with the city,” said Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the sanitation committee and says he will introduce the reform proposal, currently undergoing environmental review, in City Hall later this year.

The proposal comes a year and a half after a ProPublica investigation exposed the poor working conditions of garbage drivers in New York City. The report tells a dark tale of the sanitation industry in New York City: two people crushed to death under the weight of garbage trucks, over $780,000 of unpaid workers compensation and thousands of off-the-books drivers. Justin Wood, an attorney for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said the problem isn’t just greedy bosses, it’s a lack of regulation.

Right now there is no limit on what kind of routes trash haulers can operate or how many carters can exist in one neighborhood, Wood said. More than 50 carters might service a single community district, according a city sanitation report.

“Under the current system, the companies are locked in this ruthless competition for any (business) they can get,” Wood said. “They’re really incentivized to take customers even if they run off an existing route. This amounts to a lot of pressure on the drivers.”

The new system would allow garbage drivers to pick up trash only in their designated zone, which would make routes more efficient and mean less time on the road, Mondesi said.

Mondesi has been driving for Action Carting, a city-wide garbage hauler based in Hunts Point, for eight years. Wanting to make it home in time to see his children, Mondesi said he is always looking for ways to “cut corners.”

“I’m driving like an animal, you know? I’m driving fast. I’m driving very aggressive,” he said. It’s scary to think about the pedestrian lives he might have been endangering, he added.

“If the city keeps us in one area, I could practice safety on every single stop.”

Exclusive Zones: A More Dramatic Change

Alex Moore, spokesperson for the Teamsters Local Union 813, said the city could go one step further. He and a group of advocates are calling for an exclusive waste zone system, which means only one garbage hauler could operate in each zone.

A sanitation department impact study found that the mileage drivers would have to travel under an exclusive system was 52 percent lower than under a non-exclusive system.

Despite the findings, the agency warned against this kind of system, arguing that a monopoly over each zone would invariably lead to a price increase for customers. But Moore said companies could save big in fuel and vehicle maintenance from the reduced mileage, which would allow them to set lower prices.

Action Carting, one of the largest carters in the city, is in favor of an exclusive zoning system. CEO Ron Bergamini said that if there is competition in the zones, companies will still skirt regulation to gain customers.

“I have big plans of what we could do with one zone,” Bergamini said. “But with multiple carters in a zone, I doubt anyone will notice a difference.”

Not everyone is on board

An exclusive system would mean only 20 garbage haulers operating in the entire city.  This could be catastrophic for customers, said Michael Brady, the executive director of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District in the Bronx.

Small restaurants already pay at least $160 a week to have their garbage picked up, Brady said. And usually, businesses forge relationships with their haulers that often lead to discounted prices.

More importantly, Brady warned an exclusive waste zone system would bring the city back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, when mobsters ran the industry. Costs were higher, and there was such a monopoly on the carting in the city that if customers wanted decent service they’d have to pay extra,  he said.

“It’s going to open the door for organized crime and bribery and all this other stuff that we already learned from,” Brady said. “I don’t know why the city of New York thinks that we can outsmart organized crime. We can’t.”

Even a non-exclusive reform would hurt small businesses and do little to address the real issues with the garbage industry, he added. Brady said company proposals to gain a zone can be easily fudged and will be difficult to enforce.

“You’re gonna have an enforcement agent that might visit me once a year. Ok. So I’ll make sure that I’m really good around my yearly inspection.”

Bergamini agrees that the reform will be difficult to enforce. Particularly because the reform still allows haulers to bid for as many as 15 zones, he said it’s likely that companies could continue to use inefficient routes, or completely dominate the industry.

But Wood said these arguments are unfounded.

“I think that is a total straw man,” Wood said. In the current plans, there are 68 slots available for haulers, and 15 is hardly a majority, he added. “Really nowhere close to market dominance or a monopoly.”

The bill could be taken up by the city council later this year and if approved and signed by the mayor, placed in effect by 2023.


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