Herman Miller is one of the most respected makers of office furniture in the world and his designs are highly respected Her chair is Aeronwhich has become a staple of New York City cabins, Placed in the Museum of Modern Art permanent set.
This month, some Herman Miller chairs, which can retail for more than $1,000, met a less dignified fate: a rendezvous with the chipped metal jaws of an rig.
More than three years after the coronavirus pandemic began, about half of office space in the New York City metro area was occupied in June, according to Kastle Systems, a security card company that tracks business in office buildings. Unloading city cubicles raised economic, cultural, and existential questions, but also a big logistical one: What do you do with all that office furniture?
The answer can often be found in the back of a moving truck — on its way to the auction yard, liquidator, or more likely, landfill. Some furniture has found a new purpose in schools, churches, and living rooms. Others have been repackaged by retailers, or shipped worldwide.
More than 70 million square feet of direct office space was available for rent in Manhattan in the second quarter of 2023, a record high, compared to about 40 million square feet before the pandemic began, according to Savills, a large commercial real estate brokerage that tracks the market. New hire also remains well below pre-Covid levels.
A small class of movers and liquidators has been pushed into the suddenly growing futures office market. There has been a rush of companies putting their furniture into the company’s storage facilities in 2021 and 2022, said Lior Rechmani, CEO of Dumbo Moving and Storage. Office equipment has been in Dumbo’s three warehouses in New Jersey since the Covid hit.
“We’ve never seen so many Herman Miller chairs,” he said.
Mr. Rachmani said the shift to wait-and-see mode has translated this year into an increasing number of customers failing to pay for warehousing. The company now holds backyard lot auctions five times a year, up from once or twice a year before the pandemic. He also regularly donates unclaimed items to local charities, he said, but much of that stock is still being thrown away, due to a lack of warehouse space.
At a recent Dumbo Company warehouse in East Orange, N.J., on an industrial stretch across from a cemetery, a crew of workers were preparing to part with the last 9,500-pound office block that had been in storage at the Brooklyn Tech company since April 2021. According to Mr. Rachmani, the customer paid for the disposal, among other things. Other matters: 25 Herman Miller chairs; 20 computer monitor stands; 10 cabin planks, nine chests of carpet, two flat screen TVs.
“The amount of waste in this industry boggles your mind,” said David Esterlit, owner of OHR Home Office Solutions, a midtown Manhattan refurbishment and refurbishment company that has resold its equipment from large office tenants.
Dumbo’s crew drove more than an hour into the Maspeth neighborhood of Queens, arriving at a dump truck—one of 38 in New York City—where towering excavators were pulverizing all manner of commercial debris, and the air smelled like acetone. A station manager said the final destination for the waste could be a landfill in upstate New York or Pennsylvania.
The truck is powered by a giant industrial scale for its payload weight: 1,080 pounds, at a cost of $81 to Dumbo. Two workers in green shirts toss a chair one after the other near a mountain of chewed debris roughly sorted into recyclable metal and everything else.
Despite efforts to reuse and reuse office equipment, most of it still ends up in the trash, said Trevor Langdon, CEO of Green Standards, a sustainability consulting firm that helps reduce office waste. Based on 2018 federal statistics on waste, the most recent year for which data is available, Mr. Langdon estimates that more than 10 million tons of office furniture in the United States ends up in landfill each year.
Green Standards said it has diverted about 39,000 tonnes of office waste from landfills since the pandemic began.
Brooklyn office equipment wasn’t so lucky. In a jerky motion, the digger’s mouth swung over the half-ton pile of furniture and chomped down, turning chairs into dangling metal cephalopods.
Then a worker removed one last chair from the truck and placed it gently on the asphalt. The ergonomic backrest catches the wind to perform one final spin. Then, the rig broke, and the chair exploded in a shower of plastic shards.
Susan C Beachy Contribute to the research.