|The Power of Garbage (excerpt) | Heather Rogers |
"Where you gonna go? Who you gonna get? No one's gonna service you!" yelled a Barretti Carting Corporation representative into the phone before slamming the receiver down. This was customer service in New York City under the notorious Mafia-led garbage cartel. Clients who didn't like their rates or wanted to switch haulers had a lot of trouble on their hands. Fussy patrons might suffer verbal abuse, or they might get a visit from their garbage collector, which wasn't always a pleasant experience. "Hey, why send a poodle when you can send a pit bull?" a Barretti enforcer explained.
Since the mid-1950s, when local officials handed over commercial waste collection to private haulers, New York City's garbage industry had been dominated by a Mafia-led cartel. (The city government's Department of Sanitation has continued to collect residential garbage). Under this regime, most shops, restaurants, offices and large apartment buildings suffered the fate that Barretti's customers were subjected to. The Mob was in charge of garbage and, it seemed, no one could stop them. Some of the Big Apple's trash carting businesses were more directly Mafia-connected, like Barretti, but many were not; yet if they wanted to run their collection trucks down New York City streets, they had to join the cartel. The payoff for being a member was guaranteed customers and a healthy income--in other words protection against the market forces that might drive prices down and companies out of business. Estimates put the amount that the cartel overcharged its customers in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
All this ended rather abruptly in the mid-1990s when the Mafia's New York City garbage monopoly was destroyed. The confluence of forces behind the cartel's demise included a police crackdown on Mob activity and, perhaps more significantly, a major restructuring in the garbage industry. No longer was refuse treatment simply a service municipalities conducted themselves or contracted out to quaint mom-and-pop hauling companies. Multinational trash corporations, started in the 1970s and 1980s by a handful of innovative refuse firms, were seizing control of the garbage trade.
Two early players in the corporatization of garbage were Waste Management, Inc. (WMI) and Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI). These conglomerates spearheaded the consolidation of the industry, buying out smaller firms in towns across the Sunbelt, then spreading north and into international markets. In building their empires, WMI and BFI brought the dark and fetid world of rejectamenta into the realm of billion-dollar revenues and the New York Stock Exchange, and in the process radically remade garbage handling. Among the most significant changes the rubbish conglomerates wrought were the domination of the waste market by a few large firms, the reinvigoration of the sanitary landfill, and the exporting of garbage. All of these changes happened in rapid succession in New York City during the 1990s as the Mafia was driven out of the garbage trade.