This winter’s snow made crowded sidewalks even more claustrophobic. But the real drain on street space, trash, won’t melt away with warmer weather. Instead, New Yorkers must often contend with gargantuan garbage bag piles that make things like walking, using a stroller or wheelchair, or even outdoor dining, much more difficult. Trash is not a new problem here, but it certainly has been made worse with the rise of Amazon and all the cardboard boxes the corporate behemoth delivers to our doors. New York City urgently needs a real trash solution. And Jeff Bezos should be the first one to pay for it.
That may sound like a joke. But it’s not. Nor is it some roundabout way of saying Bezos should pay more taxes. Though, obviously, he should. No, rather, I’d like to see Bezos physically write a check to the Sanitation Department to help clean up the mess Amazon has made in New York City. (Venmo is fine too.)
Unsurprisingly, package deliveries soared during the pandemic. New Yorkers currently receive 2.4 million packages a day, a 500,000-per-day increase since before lockdown. Nearly 80% of deliveries are to households, double what it was pre-pandemic. That means more trash on the sidewalk for our taxpayer-funded Sanitation Department to collect.
Though that might change soon. A state bill proposed this year by state Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Assemblyman Steve Englebright would shift recycling costs from local governments to companies like Amazon. It’s called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and it means companies would share the burden of recycling and disposal. Other states are considering EPR laws. And similar initiatives have already taken hold in Europe.
Amazon’s diffuse impact can be hard to quantify. The cardboard boxing-in of our sidewalks is just another component of what has come to be known as the Amazon Effect. All these deliveries come with additional traffic and air pollution, not to mention the pressure it puts on local retail. It’s also been a burden on sanitation services. In 2020, Amazon created hundreds of millions of tons in plastic packaging alone. The cardboard boxes pose their own problems. As recently as 2004, cardboard boxes made up about 15% of New York City’s recycling output. Today that number has risen to 50%, creating a glut in the recycling market.
Amazon is by no means the only source of the problem. The Sanitation Department has struggled to clear curbside trash throughout this year, all while operating with a reduced budget. One notable fiscal casualty was the city’s nascent organic recycling program, which diverted food scraps away from landfills, until it was suspended last year when tax revenues evaporated. Food scraps and other organic waste make up about a third of all household waste in New York City. Recycling that garbage reduces the need for landfills. It also reduces the need for the gas required to haul it away, usually out of state. It’s a crucial part of the necessarily aggressive climate goals New York City has set for itself. Unfortunately, the Sanitation Department fell about $28 million short last year and had to cut this program. It’s one of the sad realities of the pandemic: not every city service has $28 million just lying around.
Bezos, on the other hand, does have that kind of money lying around! According to the “Jeff Bezos Salary Calculator,” it would take him about three hours to earn $28 million. Admittedly, it’s not okay to eye other people’s money. But it feels at least partially okay to eye the money of a guy who made $13 billion in one day last year thanks, in part, to all these cardboard boxes that must be dealt with by our Sanitation Department.
To his credit, Bezos believes in climate change. Just last year, Amazon spent $300 million to rename Seattle’s KeyArena the Climate Pledge Arena. For that kind of money, he could patch up our city’s composting budget shortfall for over a decade. If the former CEO wants to make real change, he could pledge to fund composting programs and other innovative trash solutions across the country. But perhaps Bezos is just an environmentalist in naming rights only. In which case, maybe there is a solution in rebranding city garbage trucks as Amazon Grime vehicles.
That so many businesses generate profits with the help of our public sanitation departments should reframe how we think about pricing. Products may appear cheap at the point of purchase. But that doesn’t mean the consumer, or the taxpayer, is finished paying for the transaction.
It may be unlikely for Bezos to face any kind of consequences for the mess Amazon has made in the city. The rumor is he is more interested in going to the moon. Meanwhile, all New Yorkers are asking for is a little more space.