In fight over trash zone system, Queens residents demand ‘waste equity’

Residents stand outside of a recycling facility in Queens during a rally Wednesday calling for the passage of a "waste equity" City Council bill. Photo Credit: Liam Quigley

Jamaica residents rallied in favor of a bill that would cut down the number of private waste haulers on local streets.

Residents stand outside of a recycling facility in Queens during a rally Wednesday calling for the passage of a "waste equity" City Council bill.
Residents stand outside of a recycling facility in Queens during a rally Wednesday calling for the passage of a "waste equity" City Council bill. Photo Credit: Todd Maisel

His gleaming white sneakers developing an outline of mud, Michael Waller made his way down Douglas Street in Queens. It’s technically a public road, but you wouldn’t know by looking at it. Trucks of every shape and size plow in and out of nearby trash and recycling facilities, throwing up dust and spewing exhaust. Their drivers are surprised to see someone walking here, let alone dozens.

It’s one of six spots in Jamaica that local residents like Waller want cleaned up as part of a proposed City Council bill to change the private trash industry by creating a new zone system and giving more oversight power to the city, thereby ensuring "equitable waste collection and disposal." Supporters of the bill rallied at the nearby Detective Keith L. Williams Park on Wednesday before marching to the waste transfer facilities.

“I do smell the stench that’s coming over here,” Waller said. “The summer months, you have the heat and the garbage. It just gives off a really foul smell.”

Some residents said they have to keep their windows closed most of the summer, and others shared stories of family members who suffer from asthma who found their symptoms worsened by the truck traffic.

There was also concern surrounding more immediate possible dangers.

“Many kids are crossing that street to come back [to the park], and there are always close calls with the kids,” said Hafeez Khan, 55, who lives nearby. “The number of trucks that come to the neighborhood are just too much,” he added. 

City Councilman Donovan Richards, a sponsor of the "waste equity" legislation, joins southeastern Queens residents at a rally calling for the bill's passage.
City Councilman Donovan Richards, a sponsor of the "waste equity" legislation, joins southeastern Queens residents at a rally calling for the bill’s passage. Photo Credit: Liam Quigley

The southeastern Queens waste transfer sites are the newest battleground for an ongoing dispute over how to make the industry safer. The proposed bill aims to reduce the number of carters operating on city streets by implementing a formal bidding process. Proponents of the bill say that by cutting down the number of carters operating across the city, streets will be safer and trucks will do less harm to the environment.

“If you implement the most rigorous, aggressive version of this bill, you cut vehicles miles traveled by 68 percent and reduce the aerosol pollutants that are causing asthma in southeast Queens,” said Dr. Michelle “Tok” Oyewole, of the Environmental Justice Alliance, one of the groups involved in the rally. 

Right now, businesses can choose their own private waste hauler. Opponents of the bill say the competition keeps costs down and improves customer service.

The waste facilities should be seen as an essential part of city infrastructure, said Kendall Christiansen, the executive director of New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, a group that opposes the proposed zone system.

“We forget that the basic service here is keeping the city clean everyday, and that there are companies and people that take the responsibility seriously, and they need a certain number of trucks and facilities in order to get that done,” he said.

Christiansen’s lobbying group includes Royal Waste, one of the private carters that operates in the area.

City council member Donovan Richards spoke in support of the proposed council legislation at the rally but said it would be a battle to get it passed.

“My colleague who chairs the sanitation committee, Antonio Reynoso, is going to be firm,” he said. “There are people who wanted to weaken this bill already, and he said ‘heck no.’ Because this is about our future, this is about our community.”

Liam Quigley