Jessica Tisch, NYC’s Sanitation Chief, On Composting, Garbage and, Yes, Rats
The longtime public official — she held top roles at the NYPD and the city's IT agency — says she would like to streamline collections and expand composting
New York City’s sanitation commissioner is not typically in the spotlight.
That has changed during the pandemic as a near-biblical rat infestation has afflicted a city grappling with mounds of trash bags clogging its curbs.
Jessica Tisch, a native New Yorker and Harvard alum three times over, could have pursued any job she wanted but entered public service like her mother, SUNY Board of Trustees Chairwoman Merryl Tisch: because she wanted to make New Yorkers’ lives better. (Her father James Tisch runs Loews Corporation, including Loews Hotels.)
After stints at the New York Police Department and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT), which she led under Mayor de Blasio, Tisch made a garbage decision last year which happened to be the most rewarding move of her career. So far, she has launched an innovative composting program, modernized street sweeping and bag collection, and is working to clean up New York’s reputation as Trash City.
For the city’s rats, winter is coming.
This interview with Tisch has been edited for length and clarity.
Commercial Observer: Why did you decide to work for the NYPD?
Jessica Tisch: I’m generally a very thoughtful person. It was not the most thoughtful decision I ever made, but certainly one that I look back on as one of the best decisions I ever made. I started out as an intelligence research specialist. I was assigned by the NYPD as a terrorism analyst studying a specific part of the world. When they realized I had a law and business degree, they said, “Hey, maybe you can help us with our budget and contracts.”
They were contemplating building out a network of sensors in Lower Manhattan. So I dreamed up what is now known as the Domain Awareness System, which started out as a system focused on Lower Manhattan with cameras, license plate readers and chemical sensors.
Over my time at the NYPD, I grew it to be a citywide network of sensors that went far beyond counterterrorism and is now the system that virtually every cop uses every day in the course of their business. Whether it’s a patrol cop responding to a 911 call for service, they look on their phone that we gave them, they see an address pop up so they can respond much faster, and they can see a history of what happened at that address.
For example, if an officer is responding to a 911 call, they can see on their phone if there’s a history of domestic violence at that location, or if they’re searching for a missing child, or if there’s an Amber Alert. Instead of cops going back to their precinct to look at a bulletin board, they can get a picture right to their phones. They get the alert right when the license plate is read in real time.
It was an amazing opportunity to reimagine and implement a new and transformative way of doing business with the department. We also were asked to give every cop a body camera. It was more than going to a precinct and handing out 200 body cameras. It was a massive undertaking. I was fortunate to have a lot of huge opportunities to do really impactful work.
What drew you to lead DOITT?
I moved right before the pandemic. I had been deputy commissioner of information technology at NYPD for seven years. I felt we really revolutionized policing technology at the NYPD, which served as a model for the rest of the profession. The work is never fully complete, but I felt my team’s contributions there were substantial and it was time to try my hand at something new.
I went to run tech for the city. I thought I’d be working on the next-generation 911 system and a few other systems that touched multiple agencies. A few weeks after I got there, surprise, the pandemic happened, and everything needs to go online now. Those were certainly the most difficult years of my career.
We got pulled into almost everything. One was building a contact-tracing system for the city. The city was shut down in March, April and part of May. The governor said the city couldn’t reopen until we satisfied five to six different criteria, and one of them was having a contact-tracing operation. That was really a race against the clock. Everyone wanted the city to reopen. We knew we didn’t have months to build out the system, so we did it in two and a half weeks, which was an effort of hundreds of people, half a dozen different companies, city employees and doctors to dream up what the city’s contact-tracing system should be and implement it.
At the same time, Mayor de Blasio said we would shut the schools down. We want to do remote learning. A lot of students don’t have devices, so we needed to give them devices. We worked with Apple, T-Mobile and Verizon; and we managed to get 500,000 iPads, configure them with all the apps kids would need, and deliver them to students’ homes.
We also did the vaccine system. The initial rollout of the city’s vaccine system was very rocky. The mayor called me and said, “Jessie, we need to build a vaccine system for the city.” They had been using an existing system at the Department of Health, and so we built a vaccine system for New York City — again, in two and a half weeks.
We got it up and running, we worked around the clock, and that system at last count helped our health care professionals administer 6 million vaccinations. It was the system that New Yorkers went to to sign up for vaccines at hundreds of clinics around the city and at hospitals. Also it was the system that clinics used when people showed up and recorded the vaccinations, which was part of the lifeblood of the city’s mass vaccination efforts.
What interested you in sanitation?
Sanitation is the essential service in New York City. My bread and butter is helping the city deliver central services to New Yorkers better and more efficiently with a focus on customer experience and customer service. In my opinion, there’s no reason the private sector should deliver better customer service than the public sector. Look at the resources we have. The average person can go their whole lives without dealing with the Fire Department. Every New Yorker depends on Sanitation every day. If we don’t do our jobs for one day, all 8.8 million New Yorkers know it and feel it. That’s what attracted me.
You’re one of the few de Blasio commissioners to stay on with the Adams administration. What was that transition like?
It wasn’t my first transition, so I understood what transitions are like. Even at the Police Department I worked for three different police commissioners and three different mayors. I consider myself and my work to be largely apolitical.
What did you say to convince Adams to bring you aboard?
I’m a very passionate person. I think his team saw my real passion for doing this. I believe very deeply that during the pandemic the city got meaningfully dirtier.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Mayor de Blasio had to make difficult budget choices. One of the things that happened in the first budget was that cleanliness as a function of sanitation was completely obliterated. And, what do you know, New Yorkers quickly saw and felt the difference — basic things, like all the litter baskets were overflowing.
I am totally committed to cleaning up the city by doing the bread and butter functions like restoring litter basket service to its highest levels, not just pre-pandemic levels but further than we’ve gone before, and full street sweeping.
Your mother was the chancellor of the state Board of Regents. What advice did your mother give you?
Work hard. My mother believes in, lives, and models the value of hard work.
What kind of feedback have you received from the commercial real estate sector?
One of the signature things we’ve done this year is change set-out times. Set-out times for New York City were 4 p.m. for decades, and we looked around the country and the world, and 4 p.m. is the earliest set-out time there is. Then Sanitation collects your trash at 6 a.m. It’s out on the curb for more days than it’s not. It’s gross. It looks horrible when you’re coming home from work.
Some American cities have innovated collections over the past decade. We wanted to shrink the amount of time trash bags sit on the curbs in New York City. We’ve asked New Yorkers to put out their trash at 8 p.m. so we could collect more of it earlier. We collect a quarter of it at the midnight shift as opposed to 6 a.m.
As part of those discussions, we worked with a number of different stakeholders, among them the Real Estate Board of New York. They were very thoughtful about it. They helped convene a series of meetings with their members so that as we were contemplating the rule change we could get a diverse set of opinions. We also appropriately brought in other stakeholders who were relevant to the conversation, chief among them [building workers union] Local 32BJ.
The most publicized problem in the city is rats. Why has it been so difficult to reduce their population?
From my perspective, one of the key issues that fits within my portfolio is the all-you-can-eat rat buffet, the 24 million pounds of trash that sits on our curbs 14 hours a day. We’ve put in place this new rule change where we’re dramatically shrinking the amount of time black bags sit on the curbs.
We also have to take the food waste out of the black bags entirely. So we launched at the start of fall the largest curbside composting program in the country, which serves the entire borough of Queens. Every address in Queens gets weekly organics collection service from Sanitation. Results have been extraordinary in my opinion. We just released results from the first three months of the program, and we collected almost 13 million pounds of organics in Queens. The average district in Queens produced three times the tonnage at one-third the cost of the legacy program.
The mayor told us he’s committed to organics and composting in NYC, but he wanted a program that was both effective and cost-
effective. I felt we needed to design a program and needed to have the average New Yorker participate. If they’re anything like me, they’ve got a lot going on. And they don’t want to have to work for it.
In our old programs, you had to express interest, sign up, and order a brown bin. It was just too many steps. Our model for this program was to keep it simple. We’re offering a service to New Yorkers.
What are you looking for in a rat czar, and how will you work with them?
The trash is an important piece of addressing the rat issue but by no means the only part of the action plan. So our mayor wants every agency collaborating. The rat czar will report directly to the deputy mayor of operations. There’s a whole rat working group and task force with us: Department of Health, New York City Housing Authority and the Buildings Department. This is a full city effort.
Can you scale composting to work citywide?
Our goal is to do universal curbside organics in the city of New York. We announced our program in Queens in the first six months of the administration. Two months later we rolled out to every address in Queens and ran it for three months. What we’re going to be doing is aggressively looking at and analyzing data from that program to develop a go-forward strategy.
So far the rollout went very smoothly. The key is outreach. We went door to door in Queens. We knocked on every door in Queens to just give basic information to residents about the program. What day do I set it out? Can I put it in a bin? Or a bag? Very basic questions. Then we did education.
What are you doing to reduce trash in commercial districts?
New York has separate rules for commercial businesses related to organic separation. Many restaurants and food service businesses are required to separate out their organic waste. [They use private carters.] We do largely residential waste.
Why did the city need consultants like those from McKinsey to study waste containerization?
Containerization is something that has been talked about in New York City for over a decade, and we had made absolutely no progress on it. It’s also an area where many European and South American cities have innovated over the past 10 to 15 years and have rolled it out successfully.
It’s like the body cameras — it’s not as simple as putting a dumpster on the street. I wish it was. It’s actually, in my opinion, probably one of the most complicated and sweeping infrastructure projects that this city will undertake in decades because it will affect everyone in every street and every neighborhood. And every street and every neighborhood is different in terms of the amount of waste they produce. So basic things like sizing the containers: How big do they have to be? Do we have the curb space? What does it mean for parking, outdoor dining, and CitiBike? Do we have to increase the frequency of our collection to accommodate it? In many European cities, they collect five to six days a week. In New York we collect two to three days a week. What does that mean for our frequency?
Our fleet today has thousands of rear-loader trucks that take the black bags. We have containers, though — you hoist the container on the side of the truck, dump the contents in the top of the truck, and put the container back onto the ground. But in New York, trucks that do that don’t exist. I don’t want to put those containers on wheels. Could you imagine thousands of containers on wheels?
There is a huge amount in developing the plan for containerization in New York. And, from my perspective, we need a consulting firm to help us as we grapple with all the issues that we’ve all laid out.
Earlier this year the mayor cut $20 million in funding for local composting programs. Did you help him change his mind on this issue?
He wanted a program for composting that was effective and cost effective. He was very clear with me in his commitment to rolling out organics in New York. That was the first thing that we did when I got here.
How do outdoor dining facilities contribute to trash and rat colonies?
We know the big problem is the abandoned ones. We’ve been very involved in getting abandoned and problematic dining sheds off the street. We’ve been working with the Department of Transportation.
Is there a way to make outdoor dining structures permanent while also keeping the street clean?
The outdoor dining structures are regulated by DOT, so that’s a question for them.
What feedback have you gotten from the commercial real estate industry about improving the city’s quality of life, such as garbage piles, cleaner sidewalks and fewer homeless encampments?
I would say generally our message of “We need to clean up New York” has been well received. We have taken a number of steps in our first year of the mayor’s term to do just that. Litter basket service has resulted in a 55 percent reduction in the number of 311 complaints for overflowing baskets. Changing set-out times will meaningfully reduce the amount of time trash spends on the street. The extra mechanical broom service is cleaning up curb lines. The highway sweeps we’re doing for on- and off-ramps of highways are changing the look and feel of highways.
What role does Sanitation have in taking apart homeless encampments and cleaning areas?
It’s a support role. We come in at the very end, when clients have been serviced.
Will we see any changes to alternate-side rules in the future after restoring street cleaning services to twice a week in July?
We need to look at alternate-side and go neighborhood by neighborhood. Many neighborhoods that were previously commercial districts and have become residential, the regulations haven’t kept up. That’s something that could use a good hard look in my opinion.
How do you use technology to improve sanitation collection?
Among the reasons I feel very at home in the Sanitation Department is that it is an agency that is very much data-driven. Over the past decade, while I was at the NYPD modernizing technology there, DSNY was doing some very similar stuff. Our entire operation is driven by this platform called SMART. You’ll see it in every garage you go to in the city. It handles the shifts that people are working, its assignments, trucks, everything. It’s soup to nuts. That was a gift that I was so happy to find when I got here.
The snow operation is entirely data-driven. There’s GPS on all the trucks that do the plowing, and New Yorkers can go online and see when their street was recently plowed. Within the department, we use it to manage the response to a snowstorm. There’s no more handing a sanitation worker a list of streets to plow on the back of a napkin. Those days are long gone. And we’re doing the same type of thing now with our street sweepers.
You’ve been at DSNY almost a year now. What’s the most disgusting thing you have either seen or smelled?
When I went to my first marine transfer station — for your readers, that’s a dump where all the trash goes every day and is barged out of the city — it was meticulous. They keep them so clean. This was the one on 91st Street in Manhattan. I was shocked. It’s a real credit to the department. They manage 24 million pounds a day. This was spotless and meticulous.
What’s the most unusual item that’s been recovered in the trash?
We got an engagement ring. And a guy lost his tefillin once and we found his tefillin. The way it works is if you call us any time, we know it’s on a certain truck that is on a certain percent of its route. Also we found a gun recently. We didn’t give the gun back.