Herman Miller is one of the most respected office furniture manufacturers in the world, its designs so highly regarded that its Aeron chairwhich became a fixture of New York cabs, was placed in the Museum of Modern Art permanent collection.
This month, some Herman Miller chairs, which can sell for more than $1,000, met a less dignified fate: a date 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 metro area in June was occupied, according to Kastle Systems, a security card company that tracks activity in office buildings. The hollowing out of the city’s cabins raised existential economic and cultural questions, but also a big logistical one: What do you do with all that office furniture?
The answer is often found in the back of a moving truck – on its way to the auction block, liquidator or, more likely, landfill. Some of the furniture found a new purpose in schools, churches and living rooms of people who moved; other pieces were repackaged by hip resellers, or shipped around the world.
More than 70 million square feet of prime 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 large commercial real estate brokerage that tracks . the market New leasing also remains well below pre-Covid levels.
A small class of movers and liquidators has been pushed into the booming office market. Lior Rachmany, the chief executive of Dumbo Moving and Storage, said that a lot of businesses put their furniture in the company’s warehouses in 2021 and 2022. Close to 2,000 medium-sized companies in the region, from law firms to technology startups, have stored. office equipment in Dumbo’s three New Jersey warehouses since Covid hit.
We’ve “never seen so many Herman Miller chairs,” he said.
Mr. Rachmany said that the change in the wait and see position has translated this year into an increasing number of customers failing to pay for storage; the company now holds auctions for delinquent 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 thrown away because of a lack of storage space.
At a Dumbo company warehouse recently in East Orange, NJ, on an industrial section across from a cemetery, a crew of workers prepared to dump the last of the 9,500-pound office lot that a Brooklyn tech company had in storage since April 2021. According to Mr. Rachmany, the client paid for the removal of, among others: 25 Herman Miller chairs; 20 computer monitors; 10 cubic panels; nine boxes of carpet; and two flat screen televisions.
“The amount of waste in this industry boggles your mind,” said David Esterlit, the owner of OHR Home Office Solutions, a renovation firm and liquidator in Midtown Manhattan that resold equipment from large office tenants.
The Dumbo crew drove for more than an hour to the Maspeth neighborhood of Queens, arriving at a waste transfer station — one of 38 in New York — where towering excavators crushed all kinds of commercial debris, and the air smelled like acetone. The waste’s final destination could be a landfill in upstate New York or Pennsylvania, a station manager said.
The van backed 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 debris that had been roughly sorted into recyclable metal and everything else.
Despite efforts to reuse and recycle office equipment, most still end up in the trash, said Trevor Langdon, the chief executive of Green Standards, a sustainability consulting firm that helps minimize office waste. Based on federal waste statistics from 2018, the latest year with available data, Mr. Langdon estimates that more than 10 million tons of office furniture in the United States end up in landfills each year.
Green Standards said it has diverted almost 39,000 tonnes of office waste from landfills since the start of the pandemic.
The Brooklyn office equipment was not so lucky. With a hacking motion, the excavator’s mouth swung over the half-ton pile of furniture and hacked down, twisting the chairs into a hanging metal cephalopod.
Then a worker removed an end seat from the van and placed it gently on the asphalt. Its ergonomic backrest caught the wind to make one last turn. Then, the excavator crashed down, and the chair exploded in a hail of plastic pieces.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.