In the past five years, at least six New Yorkers have been killed, and many others injured, by truck drivers working for private trash haulers. Labor and environmental advocates have a plan they say will reduce these deaths by cutting down on inefficiencies in private trucking routes. They are meeting resistance from the waste hauling industry, which says safety can be improved without changing the current system of contracting.
The de Blasio administration is now studying the issue. What will City Hall do?
Garbage collection in New York is split in two parts. One piece is covered by the Department of Sanitation, which handles residential and government buildings. The other belongs to a constellation of more than 250 private haulers, which contract with individual businesses to collect commercial garbage. The private haulers cart more than half the city’s trash.
The system for private trucking companies results in a lot of geographic overlap, with multiple contractors serving customers on the same block. In addition, private haulers often don’t use the nearest transfer station, instead driving across town to a facility where the company has a contract. Most of those transfer stations are in environmentally-burdened neighborhoods in the South Bronx, North Brooklyn, and southeast Queens.
It all adds up to a lot of unnecessary mileage for big, dangerous vehicles, generating pollution, congestion, and danger for pedestrians and cyclists.
Making matters worse, drivers of private trash trucks have an incentive to rush across town to keep on schedule. Some companies stretch their workers thin, advocates say, giving employees too many pick-ups across the city and not enough time to complete their overnight shifts, leading to reckless driving and drowsy drivers.
“No driver out there wants to break the law,” said Plinio Cruz, who has worked as a trash hauler for 10 years and is an organizer with Teamsters Joint Council 16. “The amount of work they have to do in a night, they’re going to have to take shortcuts, they’re going to have to run a red light, they’re going to have to drive on the opposite side of the street.”
A report prepared for DSNY by Halcrow Engineers in 2012 backs this up. It found that while companies typically “operate very efficient routes” to reach their far-flung customers, drivers often used “illegal right turns on red” and violated “one-way street restrictions” to speed up their shifts [PDF].
Enter the Transform Don’t Trash coalition, which includes members of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, union-backed policy and organizing shop ALIGN, and the Teamsters. They say the city should rewrite the rules for private trash haulers and have companies bid for long-term contracts to serve specific neighborhoods.
Not only would this system reduce truck mileage, advocates say, it would allow the city to more easily set and monitor labor and other standards, like how often old trucks must be replaced.