sorting recyclables in New York City

NYC Adjusts to New Recycling Rules, Continues to Debate Franchise Zones

In New York City, businesses and haulers are adjusting to two new recycling rules that went into effect on July 19. Under these new rules, businesses and large food processors that meet the requirements are required to compost, all businesses are required to separate paper separate paper, metal, glass and plastic containers from refuse and commercial sanitation companies can no longer comingle separated recyclable materials in the same garbage truck as trash. 

City officials hope that the new recycling rules will help ramp up the city’s recycling efforts, and the city is currently discussing the idea of creating commercial waste zones, which would divide the city into zones and require private sanitation companies to bid for the exclusive right to service a certain zone.

In addition to these new rules, the Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition rolled out a new report this week entitled “Reforming for a Better Deal: How to Align Cost Savings, Sustainability, and Stability in NYC’s Commercial Waste System” that, among other recommendations, reiterates the group’s backing of commercial waste collection zones for the city’s commercial haulers.

Discussing the rules

Members of the waste and recycling industry gathered Wednesday at Crain’s New York Business’ Business of Garbage event for a panel discussion on the new recycling rules and the current and future state of the waste and recycling industry. The panel featured Action Environmental Group CEO Ron Bergamini, NYC Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, NWRA Director, Policy/Advocacy Chaz Miller and Sims Municipal Recycling General Manager Tom Outerbridge.

Here are some key takeaway quotes from the Q&A panel discussion:

“In order to get tenants on the right track with recycling, it’s partly about education and partly about enforcement,” says Garcia. “We will visit all of the affected businesses at least twice to make sure that they understand and comply by the rules.”

“The problem isn’t that we aren’t able to sort the materials, it’s that we need customers to work with us when it comes to recycling,” says Bergamini. “It’s impossible for us to tell which tenants are recycling and which ones aren’t by looking at a large pile of trash bags.”

“Recyclers are taking in less paper than they used to because of the Internet, and paper recycling is down 20 million tons compared to 2002,” says Miller.

“There is a huge interest in organics, and it’s probably the most talked-about subject in our industry right now,” says Miller. “But the problem is that we hear a lot about the food waste problems and very little about the working solutions of food waste.”

“Food waste is like a chicken and an egg,” says Garcia. “Where some people see a problem, we see an opportunity. Right now, we are working on the diversion of food waste from both residential and commercial sectors.”

“The waste industry in New York is a $500 million industry,” says Garcia. “We get to touch every piece of the city’s economy.”

“Zoning doesn’t raise or lower costs for businesses,” says Garcia. “It honestly comes down to how the concept is structured.”

“Uncertainty in any industry is worse than certainty,” says Garcia.

“Rates across the city for both large and small businesses are significantly below the rate cap,” says Garcia.

“According to BLS, working in the sanitation industry is more dangerous than working as a police officer or firefighter,” says Garcia.

“Mayor Bill de Blasio has set zero waste goals for the city, and he has also set a goal to move over to a single stream system by 2020,” says Garcia. “It will be a capital and contractual challenge moving forward, but it’s estimated that the switch will improve recycling rates by 20 to 25 percent.”

“Commodity prices for recycled materials are low due to overproduction and oil prices,” says Miller. “Overproduction always catches up with itself but until it does, commodity prices will remain low.”

Continuing the franchise zone push

Meanwhile, Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition teamed up with Justin Wood of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and Jessica Quiason of The Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN) to develop a list of six recommendations. (Transform Don’t Trash NYC is a coalition dedicated to transforming New York City’s commercial trash industry to reduce waste and pollution, foster clean and healthy communities for all New Yorkers and create good jobs.)

The recommendations include:

  1. Businesses must be able to right-size their waste and recycling services to save money.
  2. The existing rate cap needs improvement to be meaningful to businesses.
  3. Pricing for recycling and composting services should be set to ensure that small businesses benefit from participation in diversion programs.
  4. System-wide reform should create stable prices for customers.
  5. NYC should use competitive RFPs to achieve the lowest possible prices and ongoing price stability for customers.
  6. Diversion and efficiency must go hand-in-hand.

Environmental and labor groups and the coalition support the commercial zoning concept because they believe it has the potential to reduce redundant truck routes and traffic and improve safety.

“Research shows that the top 20 [waste and recycling] companies currently control about 80 percent of the NYC market,” says Wood. “The smaller haulers are already being driven out and with a zoning system, they could subcontract publically owned transfer stations or recycling stations. We would also like to open up the competition to companies that are not currently serving the NYC area and explore the option of offering various zone sizes.”

In addition to this report, the coalition launched its “Reckless Endangerment: How New York City’s Unsafe Commercial Garbage Trucks Put Us All At Risk” report last month, which provides a brief overview of the industry’s current safety issues (most of which are based on federal inspection reports and data from the NYC Department of Sanitation) as well as a conclusion and a few recommendations.

The idea, however, is not a popular one among the industry’s players in the city, who prefer free-market competition.

“The idea of commercial waste collection zones does not appeal to the waste and recycling industry because the industry is committed to having an open-market competitive system to serve the public,” says Kendall Christiansen, manager of the New York City chapter for the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA). “This system would only allow larger companies to compete, which is something the industry has always resisted.”

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