DSNY commissioner discusses how NYC’s sanitation department has adapted to COVID-19

DSNY commissioner discusses how NYC’s sanitation department has adapted to COVID-19

New York City Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia talked about the city’s response to COVID-19 during a SWANAPalooza keynote session.

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June 29, 2020

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) kicked off its virtual SWANAPalooza event with a keynote session titled “COVID-19: The Impact on Solid Waste Operations and Lessons Learned.” The session, which was moderated by SWANA Executive Director and CEO David Biderman, also featured New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.

During the session, the pair discussed the challenges of remaining operational during the pandemic and lessons on how the department has worked to overcome some of these issues.

Garcia says that early in March, DSNY recognized that the virus was going to pose operational challenges for the city’s waste workers as the pandemic spread through communities. To deal with these challenges, she says the department put specific plans and safeguards together to protect the city’s workforce. This included regular cleaning of all touch surfaces in the trucks, disseminating face masks, starting shifts earlier at 5 a.m. to avoid the public, limiting the number of individuals working at different garages to cut down on the potential spread of the virus, and encouraging social distancing whenever possible.

Despite the city’s efforts to protect all workers, Garcia says that around 628 workers have tested positive for the virus, with more likely to have contracted the virus in mid-March before ample testing was available.

The spread of the virus among workers led to approximately 25 percent of the city’s workforce being out at any one time. “[The spread among our workers] really required everyone who was here to shore up the difference, but while there were certain delays in collections, we pretty much got it every single day,” Garcia notes.

The worker shortage among frontline personnel, however, did not seem to noticeably compromise the city’s transfer and final disposal operations.

To help cover shifts for workers out sick, Garcia says DSNY’s budget did expand to cover overtime, but without federal intervention “there will be even bigger cuts to municipal budgets.” Already, the city has had to reduce its number of sanitation workers by around 400, suspend its curbside organics program, and close some special waste drop-off sites and composting sites. However, Garcia notes that she is cautiously optimistic that the federal government will provide financial assistance to rectify some of these issues.

One factor that was unique to New York City was that residential waste volumes actually declined during periods of the last few months. Garcia surmised this was due to factors including residents leaving the city and riding the virus out in their summer homes or other locations and citizens being more mindful of not wasting food due to not wanting to go to the grocery store.

Garcia also said that the economic fallout of closed businesses in the city resulted in a drop between 70 and 90 percent in private collection. Because Garcia says nobody knows how the business community is going to respond to the continuing spread of the virus, the city’s commercial waste zone implementation and request for proposals has been delayed indefinitely since “it will be very difficult to bid for work when nobody knows [when business activity is going to resume],” Garcia says.

Although Garcia says she doesn’t know when the city might issue RFPs for its commercial waste zones, the earliest could be late fall.

As to the city’s recycling, Garcia says that DSNY has been able to protect itself from market downturns thanks to its contracts.

“In New York City with how we’re structured, we have revenue contracts on all of our paper regardless of the market, and we pay a processing fee and share revenue, so when revenues are down, it’s not hurtful to us on the metal, glass and plastic front,” Garcia says. “So, what we see is that we’ll be able to continue to provide this [recycling] service to New Yorkers through the support that we have with those contracts. Obviously, we watch the market and understand the challenges we’ve had with paper over the last year and a half, but we continue to be willing to make that investment.”

Singling out the curbside organics program, Garcia says the city would have to be much more healthy fiscally to resume and that mandatory participation would be needed to ensure program efficiencies at scale.

When asked what lessons could be learned from the city’s response to COVID-19, Garcia says that protecting the jobs of sanitation and truck maintenance workers, having ample trucks to collect waste, and having technology to deploy routing instructions remotely and keep track of individual truck volumes and costs were all essential components for continuing the city’s collection.  

“Investing in your team in good times, when you may need to be [talking about] the backup to the backup to the backup [staff member] is very, very important,” Garcia says. “The human capital part of this is where I would want to keep making the investment and make sure they have the tools they need to do the job.”