Herman Miller is one of the most revered manufacturers of office furniture in the world, its design is so appreciated that his Aeron chairwhich became a fixture in New York City bunkhouses, was housed in the Museum of Modern Art permanent collection.
This month, some Herman Miller chairs, which can sell for over $1,000, met a less dignified fate: a deal with the crushing metal jaws of an excavator.
More than three years after the coronavirus pandemic began, about half of the office space in the New York City metro area was occupied in June, according to Kastle Systems, a security mapping company that tracks activity in office buildings. The hollowing out of the city’s cubicles has raised existential economic and cultural 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 block, a liquidator or, more likely, a landfill. Some of the furniture has been given a new purpose in schools, churches and moving rooms; other pieces have been repackaged by hip retailers or shipped across the globe.
More than 70 million square feet of direct office space was available for lease in Manhattan in the second quarter of 2023, a record high compared with about 40 million square feet before the pandemic began, according to Savills, a major commercial real estate firm that tracks the market. New leasing is also still far below the pre-Covid level.
A small class of movers and liquidators have been thrust into the suddenly growing office afterlife market. Lior Rachmany, CEO of Dumbo Moving and Storage, said a host of companies are moving their furniture into the company’s storage facilities in 2021 and 2022. Close to 2,000 medium-sized businesses in the region, from law firms to tech startups, have stocked office equipment in Dumbo’s three warehouses in New Jersey since Covid hit.
We’ve “never seen so many Herman Miller chairs,” he said.
The shift to a wait-and-see attitude has translated this year into an increasing number of customers defaulting on storage, Mr. Rachmany; the company now holds auctions for defaulted lots five times a year, up from once or twice a year before the pandemic. It also regularly donates unclaimed items to local charities, he said, but much of that inventory is still discarded due to a lack of storage space.
At a warehouse of the Dumbo company in East Orange, N.J., on an industrial stretch across from a cemetery, a crew of workers prepared to dump the last of a 9,500-pound office lot that a Brooklyn tech company had been storing since April 2021. According to Mr. Rachmany, the client paid for the disposal of, among other things: 25 Herman Miller chairs; 20 stands for computer monitors; 10 cabinet panels; nine boxes of blankets; and two flat screen TVs.
“The amount of waste in this industry would boggle your mind,” said David Esterlit, the owner of OHR Home Office Solutions, a renovation company and liquidator in Midtown Manhattan that has resold equipment from large office tenants.
The Dumbo crew drove over an hour to the Maspeth neighborhood of Queens and arrived at a waste transfer station — one of 38 in New York City — where towering excavators crushed all manner of commercial waste and the air smelled of acetone. The waste’s final destination could be a landfill in upstate New York or Pennsylvania, a station manager said.
The van backed up on a giant industrial scale to weigh its cargo: 1,080 pounds, at a cost of $81 to Dumbo. Two workers in lime green shirts tossed one chair after another near a mountain of chewed-up trash that was roughly sorted into recyclable metal and everything else.
Despite efforts to reuse and recycle office equipment, most still ends up in the trash, said Trevor Langdon, CEO of Green Standards, a sustainability consulting firm that helps minimize office waste. Based on 2018 federal waste statistics, 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 end up in a landfill each year.
Green Standards said it has diverted almost 39,000 tonnes of office waste from landfills since the pandemic began.
The office equipment in Brooklyn was not so lucky. In a choppy motion, the excavator’s mouth swung across the half-ton pile of furniture, chopping down and twisting the chairs into a hanging metal octopus.
Then a worker removed a final chair from the van and carefully placed it on the asphalt. Its ergonomic backrest caught the wind to perform a final spin. Then the excavator crunched down and the chair exploded in a hail of plastic pieces.
Susan C. Beachy the contribution of research.