Commercial Trash Carting Reforms Could Cut Millions of Miles of Truck Traffic

The density of private waste collection routes today (left), and in a hypothetical zoned system (right). Image: DSNY
The density of private trash hauling routes today (left), and in a hypothetical zoned system (right). Image: DSNY

Reforming the city’s commercial waste carting industry could reduce garbage truck traffic as much as 15 million miles each year, according to a new report from the Department of Sanitation and the Business Integrity Commission.

The truck traffic reductions would come from switching to a “zone-based” system for commercial trash collection, a transition that the de Blasio administration will pursue over the next two years, City Hall announced yesterday.

Currently, more than 250 private carting companies handle commercial waste hauling in New York City (as opposed to residential and government waste collection, which is handled by DSNY). The private carters contract with individual businesses, resulting in vast inefficiencies. It’s not unusual for several companies to handle commercial trash collection on a single block, for instance.

All that geographic overlap means a lot of redundant truck mileage, with the burden felt most heavily in communities near transfer stations in the South Bronx, northern Brooklyn, and eastern Queens. The sprawling routes also create pressure on truck operators to drive dangerously to cover territory, according to a 2012 report prepared for DSNY [PDF].

In a zone-based system, companies would bid for contracts to handle all the commercial trash within defined areas. The Transform Don’t Trash coalition has been advocating for zone-based waste collection as a way to reduce the environmental harm and safety hazards associated with the current system.

In its announcement yesterday, the de Blasio administration said switching to zone-based waste collection would be economically feasible and could reduce commercial waste carting mileage by 49 to 68 percent, or between 11.27 and 15.64 million miles each year. That would lead to a 42 to 64 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 34 to 62 percent reduction in pollutants linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses, according to the accompanying report.

The analysis of truck routes, conducted by Sam Schwartz Engineering [PDF], found that private trash haulers travel 23.1 million miles each year, including mileage in adjacent counties where garages and transfer stations are often located. Switching to a zone-based system would yield benefits in the form of reduced congestion, lower roadway maintenance needs, and less nighttime noise.

Reducing garbage truck mileage would also reduce exposure to dangerous traffic. Private trash haulers killed six people in New York City between 2010 and 2015, according to crash information compiled by Streetsblog.

A safety analysis released by City Hall yesterday, also conducted by Sam Schwartz Engineering, examined the 21 reported crashes involving private carters from 2010 through 2014 [PDF]. The number of reported crashes is not large, but the severity tends to be high, with 86 percent of the crashes causing injury or death. Crashes involving sanitation trucks are also likely underreported, the authors say, since every driver interviewed for the study indicated involvement in at least one minor crash.

With the release of the report, City Hall is now embarking on what it anticipates will be a two-year process to develop a detailed implementation plan for the zone-based collection system. Cities including San Jose, Seattle, and Los Angeles have already proven that such a system can work, and the administration has support from a number of labor and environmental groups, including Teamsters Joint Council 16, which represents the city’s public and private sanitation workers.

To see the transition through, however, the de Blasio administration will have to tangle with the private carting industry, which has indicated its opposition to a zone-based system.

  • mfs

    A carting industry spokesperson said there are 900 trucks active in NYC. At 18 serious injury/fatality crashes in 2010-2014, that’s 2% of the fleet that was involved in a injury/fatality crash over five years. That’s astounding.

  • AlexWithAK

    The drivers of these trucks are absolute menaces. They routinely blow red lights and speed in vehicles that weigh upwards of 30 tons. And I don’t mean they roll through a second or 2 after a light turns red. I mean they approach a solid red light, maybe slow down if you’re lucky, and then drive straight through. When I called one out for doing this on my block the response was a streak of profanity from the 2 guys in the truck.

    This would be an improvement not just in terms of reduced emissions and mileage, but also because you’d be able to find out what company works your zone and hold them more accountable for their dangerous driving. When it’s time to renew their contract, that’s a great time to pile on the complaints.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve seen them them go through red lights in my area at ~55 mph while blasting the horn. Maybe that works if you’re a train at a railroad crossing but it strikes me as a pretty dangerous practice operating a heavy truck on urban surface streets.

  • AlexWithAK

    That’s an understatement, but not at all surprising.


    In this industry there is a direct connection between injustice to the workers and public safety. Some of the route sheets submitted to the city by hauling companies show workers collecting garbage from 400-600 customers per night (!) More efficient routes and better training and compensation for drivers and workers will mean shorter shifts, less and fatigued driving. The study also found that some drivers are paid by the route, not by the hour creating enormous pressure to speed, blow lights, etc.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Anther example of how the people running American cities don’t even seem to be trying to do a decent job.

  • Daphna

    Zone based is a good idea but in the early discussions about this from a few years ago, the non-profit pushing for this change was also pushing to only allow companies with unionized workers to bid for each zone. They are using this is as a back-door way to increase unionization with growing unions as their primary goal and increasing carting efficiency and decreasing truck traffic as secondary goals. These should be separate issues. Switching to a zone-based system should be a change in and of itself and should not be pared with a new requirement that carting companies must have their workers join unions in order to participate in the bidding process for a zone.

  • Ross Guthrie

    Since pricing is left in check by competition, what would it look like with no competition? What would be the driver in keeping the prices down if the hauler is a de facto monopoly?

  • in the construction industry, safety is much much higher in companies using union workers. there are training on safety etc.. I think it is a good idea all around .

  • Joe R.

    The safety issue can easily be tackled by perhaps requiring any companies bidding for zones to require cameras and speed recording devices on their trucks. If an incident occurs, those recordings would be pulled. If they don’t exist, the company would be heavily fined. And the city would reserve the right to randomly pull recordings even if no incidents occur just to ensure the trucks are being operated safely. Those things would end the incentives for companies to give drivers routes which they can only complete on time by driving recklessly.

    We shouldn’t be using zoned bidding as a back-door way to increase unionization. In fact, having union requirements for workers engaged in government contracts may well be unconstitutional.

  • And a government has a right to limit its search for contractors only to those companies which meet that government’s criteria. One criterion could be that the company have a unionised workforce. As stated by @chekpeds:disqus, unionisation correlates with improved safety; so a government would have a good policy reason to espouse this condition.

  • Joe R.

    Lots of problems with that sort of reasoning. For starters, suppose a company’s only business is contracting for government. And suppose the government suddenly inserts this rule about requiring unions. Furthermore, let’s suppose the workforce is happy with things as they are (as hard as it seems to be for you to believe, some ununionized workers are quite happy with their situations). At that point the company has two alternatives—go out of business, or force something upon their workers which they don’t want. And while we’re at this, would the government consider an in-house union sufficient to meet its criteria, or do the workers have to join one of the big national labor unions? An “in-house” union might not be so bad. The workers just sign a paper saying they’re in the union. The union doesn’t even need to perform any functions beyond that, or collect dues. But my guess is big government types will only be satisfied if workers join one of the major unions, aka rackets, like the Teamsters. And have their pockets picked for dues and fees every paycheck.

    American workers have voted with their feet against unionization, at least the big, intrusive kind. As strange as it may seem to you, workers can put pressure on their employers for a better deal. I did that several times. If their terms aren’t met, they’re free to go to another employer who meets their terms.

    As for safety, it’s pretty hard these days for companies to skirt things like OSHA regulations. I’ve already suggested one way NYC can ensure sanitation trucks are driven safely. In fact, nowadays with hidden cameras it’s pretty hard for employers to get away with major safety violations, unions or not.

    Another point is that a rule requiring unionization likely violates contract law. When I enter into a contract with anybody for a good or service only two things concern me as a customer—the price and what the contractor agrees to do for that price. Their internal labor arrangements aren’t my concern, nor am I legally privy to them. The same applies if the customer is the government. I’ll bet one day the Supreme Court finds government contracts requiring union labor unconstitutional. The latitude for abuse here is staggering. I’m sure the politicians who pass laws like this get kickbacks from the unions just for starters.

  • A vanishingly small percentage of individual workers have enough clout to force improvements at a company simply by threatening to leave. To suggest this as a broad-based solution hints at your being rather seriously out of touch with realities beyond your own circumstances. Collective strength is workers’ only strength. Unions have been, are, and always will be the only means by which justice in the workplace can be achieved.

    The American working class has indeed let this slip to a dangerous extent; and virtually all of us are suffering the consequences — even those of us who are lucky enough to still be represented by a union. Without the ability to act collectively, workers’ interests (and, therefore, the interests of the general society in terms of safety and in terms of distribution of wealth) get trounced; and it’s just a race to the bottom for working conditions and compensation.

    Furthermore, a company’s government contract is not a perpetual guarantee. When the period of a contract is up, any given company may or may not meet the requirements for the next round of contracts.

  • Joe R.

    You’re looking at things from an extremely narrow perspective—namely one where all workers are interchangeable cogs in a wheel. This may have applied back when large numbers of people worked in manufacturing but it’s no longer true. People have increasingly diverse job functions, even those with the same title. A one size fits all union or union contract can’t possibly be of much use. More often than not more people are hurt rather than helped by union membership.

    Here’s some reading about why unions in the traditional sense are less and less relevant these days:

    Nowadays something like works councils described in the last article seem to make the most sense. They give workers a united voice in their company, but at the same time they generally don’t collect dues or get involved in politics.

    Another good model is one where workers are all part owners of a company. They don’t get pay or benefits in the strict sense, but rather get a share of the profits each year. That gives both workers and management a common goal. It’s actually how I would run a company if I needed workers.

  • terrific idea . I would use it on all the routes and include safety metrics as a condition of renewal of their contracts. anther critical feature is low energy low pollution trucks and front mirror as a requirement . Drivers should also be vetted on their criminal and driving records.. and the contracts should be for 3 years only . not 10 .. if the city is going to issue RFP for routes this gives a lot of leverage to bring theses drivers in compliance . then the same should apply to sanitation trucks and drivers who work for the city . ONe such truck killed by hit and run a neighbor. the police caught up with him .. and let him go .. He did not see anything .. Don’t get me started…

  • Joe R.

    I totally forgot about the pollution/energy issue. Short term require less polluting trucks. Longer term (5-10 years) require zero emissions trucks as they become available. Electric drive seems a natural for sanitation trucks with their stop-and-go service patterns. It’ll also help with the noise pollution these things cause.

  • Menachem Goldstein

    They are very aggressive drivers. The public sees them as ‘official’ because people don’t know the difference between city sanitation and private sanitation trucks. So to them it’s like driving around when no one is watching!


Private Trash Haulers Pollute Low-Income NYC Neighborhoods of Color

With the city preparing reforms for the commercial waste carting industry, the Transform Don’t Trash NYC Coalition of labor and environmental justice groups released a report today calling attention to how private trash trucks disproportionately harm air quality in a few specific low-income communities of color [PDF]. The report, “Clearing the Air,” shows the high concentration of asthma-inducing pollutants at truck-heavy areas in the South Bronx […]