George Miranda, the author, at a rally (photo via International Brotherhood of Teamsters)
There are few things more political in New York City than garbage.
On Friday, the City Council's Sanitation Committee held a hearing on Intro. 495, legislation that will cap the amount of trash that can be sent to any one neighborhood for disposal.
It sounds simple enough and only fair. But fights between communities and big corporations, who make a lot of money hauling garbage, are rarely easy. Intro. 495 is a different story. Labor is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these communities and holding the companies where our members work accountable.
The Teamsters are New York City's sanitation union. From the Department of Sanitation workers who pick up the trash and recycling from your home, to the private carting workers who collect and process waste from New York City businesses, we take out the trash.
In the past, unions did not see community activists as our allies – or worse, we saw them as Not-In-My-Backyarders standing in the way of jobs. I now know that these fights are our fights too. Caring about workers does not end when they clock out. If our members do not have clear air to breathe or safe streets to walk with their kids, that is a union issue.
It is also about fundamental fairness. Forcing a few neighborhoods to take almost all of the city's trash is just plain wrong.
Currently, three-quarters of New York City's trash is sent to three communities: the South Bronx, North Brooklyn, and Southeast Queens. Almost half of our city's trash comes from Manhattan, but the borough lacks a single transfer station, the facilities where garbage is dumped every day and loaded onto trucks destined for out-of-state landfills.
The Department of Sanitation plans to change that with a state-of-the-art transfer station on East 91st Street, and others around the city. Technology will control odors and pollution, and trash will be exported by barge and rail, reducing the number of trucks on our streets. The employees will join the ranks of the city's sanitation workers, Teamster members who receive good pay, benefits, and safety protections.
The South Bronx, where I grew up, is home to numerous dirty, old waste transfer stations. Every morning, long lines of private garbage trucks form in front of homes, schools, and parks, waiting to drop off their loads. The smell is even worse than the sight – garbage fumes and diesel exhaust – and the problem is more than aesthetic. Children in these communities have higher asthma rates than the city as a whole because of pollution like diesel exhaust.
It's not a coincidence that neighborhoods like the South Bronx get saddled with all of our waste. The sanitation corporations have always found it easier to operate in poor communities of color. Our city government has gone along with it.
Mayor de Blasio and the City Council can do better. Voters want elected officials who will make sure the trash gets picked up, but we also voted for a vision of one city, where the poorest and most vulnerable among us are protected.
Intro. 495 would do two things. It would reduce the amount of trash going to the three most burdened neighborhoods. They would still take more trash than anywhere else, but the impact would be lessened. This has been the goal of opening a fleet of modern transfer stations, which will soon come on line around the city, but this legislation would make it the law too.
Second, the legislation would create a cap for all communities, so that no neighborhood ever again takes more than its fair share of trash.
Intro. 495 is part of a larger movement to make a waste system that works for everyone. At the same time, we are working to increase recycling, expand composting, and raise working standards in the sanitation industry.
You might be asking yourself, why would the sanitation workers union want to reduce the amount of trash we collect? The truth is, this is an industry where becoming more efficient actually creates more and better jobs. Recycling creates five to 20 times more jobs than landfilling trash. By increasing recycling we won't just be cleaning up our communities, we will also be creating good jobs for New York families.
Less trash is better for New Yorkers, at home and at work.
George Miranda is President of Teamsters Joint Council 16.