Let's Stop Wasting our Waste - and Hurting Ourselves

Hey policy wonks! As you're furiously scribbling notes on what the incoming De Blasio Administration should focus on - or maybe scarfing organic Lara bars while tweeting your blog post - take a moment to think about where that paper and that wrapper are going - and who they're profiting and who they're hurting.

New York City's recent mayoral election has sparked a flurry of anticipation: many are hopeful that De Blasio's "Tale of Two Cities" rhetoric will manifest into concrete programs that actually narrow the vast divide between the 1% and the 21% living below the poverty line, while some sectors are wary of how De Blasio's campaign platforms will affect their operations and bottom lines.

Of course, a new mayor does not mean every initiative of the previous Administration will be tossed into the garbage. In fact, many groups are pushing De Blasio to do just the opposite: not only continue Bloomberg's push to double New York City's municipal recycling rates (from the rather meager 15% in 20132, but to focus on the detrimental effects of commercial waste, especially in communities with high rates of poverty.

Restaurants, offices and businesses send nearly 2 million tons of commercial waste to landfills and incinerators each year. New York City estimates that over 90% of commercial waste could be recycled or composted, but that currently, it's less than half.

The "Transform Don't Trash NYC" alliance - a coalition of labor, environmental justice, community and other advocates - just published a new report with data on how the current operations of the commercial waste industry are highly polluting, inefficient, and disproportionately burdensome on low-income communities and communities of color. One need only look at a map of New York to see that waste treatment plants and waste transfer stations are clustered in lower-income areas of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, as are bus depots and heavy industry. Unsurprisingly, these areas also experience higher rates of disease; for example, rates of death from asthma are three times the national average, and it is estimated that in some neighborhoods in the Bronx 20% of the children have asthma.

And the commercial waste sector - unlike municipal waste collected by the Department of Sanitation and subject to City enforcement - is something of a free-for-all of private carters who may or may not be recycling what they collect. However, the system of permits and operations overseen by the Business Integrity Commission (BIC) - initially put in place because of the need to dismantle mob-rule in the industry - has made initiatives to reform the industry difficult. This has led to a proliferation of private haulers whose routes often overlap, leading to more noise, more pollution, and less oversight, including of working conditions.

The Transform Don't Trash alliance wants to change that. It points to data showing that NYC could feasibly recycle and compost 90% of its commercial waste, and  for every 1 job created by incineration or landfill dumping, 20 jobs could be created by expanding the recycling industry.

The shift would be achieved through a variety of measures, some of which are already in motion including construction of facilities that could compost food waste or create methane gas using anaerobic digestion and greater pressure on and enforcement of existing commercial haulers. Additionally - as much as New Yorkers hate to give credit to the West Coast - Los Angeles (with the inspiring leadership and support of LAANE) is in the process of overhaul(hah!)ing its commercial waste system, replacing it with a franchise system of twelve exclusive zones and greater monitoring of workplaces.

As 2014 inches closer and the De Blasio Administration assesses the landscape and refines its priorities - it must recognize how much harm is being done in the current system - to people and the environment - and how much good can be created by making recycling part of the new status quo. Or, as Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE, puts it: "in communities of color like Sunset Park that house a waste transfer station, a marine transfer station and a recycling facility, we believe it is everyone's responsibility to alleviate the burdens in environmental justice communities and start working collectively to reduce the commercial waste stream and its impacts across the board."