Forget Finance, New York is Trash Capital of the World

New York City is big on superlatives—the first, the best, the richest.

City of New York Department of Sanitation
Photo: City of New York Department of Sanitation
City of New York Department of Sanitation

In the trash arena, the Big Apple ranks Number 1, too: New York City’s quasi-military $1.2 billion Department of Sanitation is the largest municipal garbage operation in the world.

“The numbers [some in the millions] are pretty staggering,” said Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research with the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), a solid-waste organization that promotes effective trash collection.

Big Apple Trash: By the Numbers

Within the city’s 59 sanitation districts on 6,300 miles of streets, the departmenthandles 11,000 tons of residential garbage daily, or 3.3 million tons annually, about double the amount of Los Angeles and three times that of Chicago, for the city’s 8.4 million residents.

Trash Inc: The Secret Life of Garbage
Trash Inc: The Secret Life of Garbage

Another 11,000 more tons of New York City garbage a day comes from commercial buildings, but private haulers, not the city, pick up that trash.

On average, each New Yorker generates four pounds of refuse daily. Those discarded steak bones, potato peels and plastic bags can end up anywhere from a trash-to-energy plant in Essex County, N.J., a half hour from the city, to landfills as far away as South Carolina and Ohio, but not in New York City itself.

The city sanitation fleet is impressive, too. It has 2,200 rear-loading trucks, 450 mechanical street sweepers and assorted supervisory and snow-removing vehicles. Los Angeles, for instance, has 750 garbage trucks.

O’Brien said New York’s operation is also exceptional in the frequency of service: Residents have their garbage collected two to three times a week, whereas most cities do it only once weekly.

"New York City handles 3.3 million tons of residential garbage annually—about double the amount of Los Angeles and three times that of Chicago."

“The job remains challenging,” said Vito Turso, a NYC deputy sanitation commissioner, who has worked for the city since 1978.

It's a Dirty Job, But...

The deputy commissioner is one of the lieutenants who rank below Sanitation Commissioner John J. Doherty. The structure deploys an army of workers under what are called four-star, three-star and two-star chiefs. Next come the supervisors and then the on-the-street guys, the sanitation workers dressed in forest green uniforms.

Those workers, on the job from either 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., or from 4 p.m. to midnight, do everything from driving trucks and hauling garbage to emptying public trash cans to removing snow and sweeping streets.

The much smaller canine waste division, which works undercover, enforces a 1978 law with a $250 fine for any pet owners who fail to pick up their animal’s waste from the street.

“It’s a very good opportunity for someone with a high school education,” said Turso. The annual base salary of a five-year veteran is about $67,000, which, with overtime and productivity enhancements, the pay can rise to $80,000.

Of course, in a city like New York, sanitation workers see their fair share of criminal evidence discarded, including weapons used while committing a crime, and the result—corpses and body parts. Sometimes, though, what’s dumped in New York City results in a happy ending.

Once, artwork that belonged to President Kennedy wound up in the trash.

“In late 70s, we received an evening phone call from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis saying that 17 paintings had been mistaken by the building staff as waste,” explained Turso. “We were able to identify the truck, and we diverted it to a marine transfer station.”

Another time, an engagement ring mistakenly got mixed in with apple cores and pizza crusts headed to a landfill. “By knowing the address, by knowing the truck, we assisted the person in finding the ring at a disposal point,” said Turso. “It was in that truck—in 10 tons of garbage.”

The ranks of the department, which began in 1881, were at a high of 14,000 workers in the 1950’s, but are now at 9,000, due to modernization and cutbacks. “As the equipment got better, we got more productive,” said Turso. “If you get more efficient, you need fewer people to do the job.”

Like Lifting the Titanic

Despite all the superlatives, New York City ranks behind smaller cities in modernization of trash collection.

  • Cool Interactive Map: Trash Across America

The trend these days is to be fully automated, with one worker—a driver who operates mechanical arms to pick up large plastic garbage bins outside the buildings and doesn’t leave the truck. Los Angeles and San Francisco employ that model, and Chicago uses a semi-automated system, which means that a sanitation worker moves a wheeled garbage bin to the truck and then dumps the refuse inside.

New York is unable to institute such automated advances due to the size and congestion of the streets, including parked cars, which restrict curbside access.

“All that [collection in NYC] is done manually: Those collectors are lifting a lot of weight,” said SWANA’s O’Brien. “By 30 years, at the end of your career, you would have lifted the weight of the Titanic. It means a lot of back injuries.”

Like the mail, though, NYC garbage never stops coming. “Imagine a day in New York City without the sanitation department,” added NYC’s Turso.

For those who live, work or visit New York City, a "day without sanitation" is one day that nobody ever wants to come.

On Wednesday, September 29 at 9pm ET/PT, CNBC presents “Trash Inc: The Secret Life of Garbage,”a CNBC Original reported by Carl Quintanilla that takes an inside look at what happens to our garbage after we throw it out – where it goes, who touches it, and who makes money.