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Tales from Our Trash: New York City’s Sanitation Workers, Sustainable Cities, and the Value of Knowledge

2013 November 13


By Rebecca Bratspies

screen_20060123182758_9talkingtrash2tsi's_pickup_crewWe have a problem in New York City: We generate more than 30,000 tons of waste each day. Roughly one third of that waste is household trash, and the daunting task of collecting garbage from New York City’s three million households falls to 7,000 workers from the NYC Department of Sanitation.  They are, in the words of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “keeping New York City alive.”

All of NYC’s waste is shipped out of state for disposal. But first, the city must consolidate the garbage at one of 58 waste transfer stations. In addition to the overpowering odors the trash itself produces, these stations generate a constant stream of truck traffic, air pollution, noise pollution, and safety issues. So, of course, no one wants to live near them.

Thus, it may come as no surprise that most of NYC’s waste transfer stations are concentrated in poor and minority communities in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. In 1996, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance helped form the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods to address this injustice, and over the next decade these groups worked with hundreds of concerned citizens, ultimately culminating in the passage of the City’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan. Although the plan laid the foundation for a more equitable distribution of these facilities, attempts to locate a waste transfer station in Manhattan have been met with litigation and outrage.

frank justich wayI think about these numbers every time I place my family’s trash can on the curb for sanitation workers to empty. These workers do this thankless and risky job every day. Sanitation workers are far more likely to be killed on the job than are police officers or firefighters. In 2010, this was the case when NYC sanitation worker Frank Justich was hit by a truck and killed while on the job in Queens. My daily commute takes me past the corner where he died, which was renamed Frank Justich Way in his honor. How many of us know the names of the men and women who collect our trash? Their vital contribution to our welfare goes unacknowledged: their specialized knowledge and skills overlooked.

This is why the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER) is launching its Whose Trash? Initiative, which uses NYC waste-handling practices to consider broader questions of urban sustainability. This initiative highlights the importance of including under-represented voices in the waste planning processes: communities burdened with landfills and transfer stations; workers tasked with collecting and handling wastes; and young people saddled with undesirable economic and ecological legacies.

The kick-off event, Tales from Our Trash, will take place this Thursday, November 14, at 6 p.m. at CUNY School of Law. Commemorating Frank Justich’s life and service, this event highlights the contributions sanitation workers make to urban sustainability. The event will be memorialized by Frank Justich’s widow, who speak briefly about what it means to her that this event is commemorating her husband’s life and work. Other participants include  Dr. Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation and author of Picking Up; CUNY School of Law Professor and CUER Director Rebecca Bratspies; artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, creator of Touch Sanitation and artist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation; NYC Sanitation Commissioner John J. Doherty; and three NYC high school students speaking on behalf of future generations. More information is available on CUNY Law’s website.  Don’t live in New York? No Problem! The events are free and it is open to the public, and will be live-streamed online. Hope to see you there!

About the author: Rebecca Bratspies, Professor, joined the faculty of CUNY Law in 2004. Her teaching and scholarly research focus on environmental and public international law, with a particular emphasis on how legal systems govern the global commons and how law can further sustainable development. Professor Bratspies spent a year seconded to the Republic of China (Taiwan) Environmental Protection Administration. Upon her return to the United States, she was a litigation associate with Dechert, Price and Rhoads where she worked with civil rights groups to bring two victorious class action suits challenging Pennsylvania’s implementation of welfare reform.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Tim Jakes permalink
    November 13, 2013

    Ohh Myy Goodness I had no idea that so many sanitation workers loose their lives on the job! It is great to read that there are so many organizations focused on reducing the amount of garbage being created and shipped and are focused on ensuring that it doesn’t end up in poor and minority communities. We all can do something to help with this type of unneccessary impact.


  2. Rebecca Bratspies permalink
    November 14, 2013

    Thanks Tim. It is indeed surprising to learn just how dangerous it is to be a sanitation worker. Of course municipal trash is just 1/3 of New York City’s waste (commercial waste and construction debris make up the other 2/3). It will take structural and legal changes to really get at the root of the overall waste problem.

  3. Liam permalink
    November 15, 2013

    Thank you to the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and you for all of your hard work and dedication on this very important issue. I’m glad to see that you are including students in the “Who’s Trash? Initiative. The next generation definitely needs to understand the possible impacts they will be delaing with for years to come.


  4. Devorah permalink
    November 15, 2013

    Great Blog!!!! We still have way to many communities with “Waste Transfer Stations” located in them and unfortunately they are the poorest and communities of color. We need better local planning to avoid these trypes of issues in the future.

  5. electra27 permalink
    November 16, 2013

    Your topic is one part of a very complex issue. And I can relate to your comment that we have a problem of generating massive amounts of waste each day–all I had to do was look at the veritable MOUNTAIN of trash piled on the sidewalk of just one ritzy high-rise of the many in my neighborhood. It overwhelmed me. Considering that the holidays are coming up, I expect there to be twice as much garbage soon.
    I agree that the law may be the leveraging point for sustainability practices and development; including how and where waste is managed. Laws are generated with good intentions but only successfully implemented if society’s values back those laws. Unless society values decreasing consumerism, reuse and recycling, all the city’s efforts will not keep up with our addictive waste production.
    Media has a huge influence on what we humans do. I think our city agencies are big on laws and weak on convincing the public of the need for what it wants. If our city really wanted our citizens to realize the value of reduction and recycling and generate a willingness on the part of the public to implement the practices, our city government would have public service announcements and advertisements to help convince us of the value of waste reduction. If our city really valued less waste production and more recycling, they would enforce the laws already on the books for example at city agencies where they have control of operations and employee practices. Those laws and city regulations regarding recycling and energy reduction are far from fully implemented. If the city valued recycling, they would generate millions from fines by observing violations and fining garbage infractions. That could far outpace the millions it collects from parking tickets, the avoidance of which cause, ironically, noise, traffic and pollution. The citizens who valued our environment would clean their streets out 18 inches and their sidewalks rather than expecting or thinking that it is the DOS’ responsibility and the DOS would enforce it, as it is the city code rule for cleaning by businesses and residencies. In other words, without the city itself getting serious about and valuing reduction and recycling in its agencies and really seeing the importance of convincing the public of the value and need for these things, the city will never keep up with the garbage or be successful in its management.

  6. Kay Sandy permalink
    February 26, 2015

    “How many of us know the names of the men and women who collect our trash? Their vital contribution to our welfare goes unacknowledged: their specialized knowledge and skills overlooked.”

    I was just thinking about this the other day… it’s so easy for society to look down on or disregard sanitation workers because of the image, nature and status of the work they do, but a little consideration of their contribution will quickly reveal just how smart and useful they are. They are literally keeping us from consuming harmful contaminants every single day in the food and liquids we cannot seem to get enough of, by appropriately processing the ridiculous amount of waste being generated every single day (ridiculous is an understatement).


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