Herman Miller is one of the most respected manufacturers of office furniture in the world, its designs are so respected this is aeron chairwhich became a part of the New York City cubicles, housed in the Museum of Modern Art Permanent Collection.
This month, some Herman Miller chairs, which can have a retail price of more than $1,000, suffered a less honorable fate: an appointment with the crushing metal jaws of an excavator.
Nearly half of office space in the New York City metro area was occupied in June, more than three years after the coronavirus pandemic began, according to Custal Systems, a security-card company that tracks activity in office buildings. The hollowing out of city chambers has raised not only existential economic and cultural questions, but also a larger logistical question: What do you do with all the office furniture?
The answer can often be found in the back of a moving truck — on its way to the auction block, liquidator or, more likely, the landfill. Some furniture has found a new purpose in schools, churches, and in movers’ living rooms; Other pieces have been repackaged by hip resellers, or shipped around the world.
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 of space before the pandemic began, according to Savills, a large commercial Real estate brokerage that tracks the market. New leasing is also well below pre-Covid levels.
A small segment of movers and liquidators have been pushed into the suddenly booming office-afterlife market. Lior Rachmany, chief executive of Dumbo Moving & Storage, said a multitude of businesses have placed their belongings in the company’s storage facilities in 2021 and 2022. Some 2,000 medium-sized companies in the area ranging from law firms to tech start-ups have stored office equipment in three New Jersey warehouses in Dumbo since Covid hit.
We’ve “never seen so many Herman Miller chairs,” he said.
Mr. Rachmany said that the number of customers failing to pay for storage has increased this year due to a wait-and-see currency shift; The company now conducts auctions for outstanding 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 a lot of that stuff is still thrown away due to lack of warehouse space.
At a DUMBO company warehouse in East Orange, N.J., on an industrial block opposite a cemetery recently, a crew of workers prepares to clear out the last of the Brooklyn tech company’s 9,500-pound office space, which will be completed in April. Was in storage since 2021. According to Mr. Rachmani, the customer paid for the settlement, among other things: 25 Herman Miller chairs; 20 computer monitor stand; 10 cubicle panels; nine boxes of carpets; and two flat screen TVs.
“The amount of waste in this industry will boggle your mind,” said David Esterlitt, owner of OHR Home Office Solutions, a refurbishment company and liquidator in midtown Manhattan that resold equipment from large office tenants.
The DUMBO crew drove through the Maspeth neighborhood of Queens for more than an hour, and arrived at a trash transfer station — one of 38 in New York City — where elevated excavators were crushing all kinds of commercial debris, and acetone was in the air. It was smelling like A station manager said the final destination of the litter could be a landfill in New York or Pennsylvania.
The van was propped up on a giant industrial scale to weigh its cargo: 1,080 pounds, at a cost of $81 to Dumbo. Two workers dressed in lime green shirts toss chair after chair beside a mountain of chewed-up debris, which is roughly divided into recyclable metal and everything else.
Despite efforts to recycle and reuse office equipment, most are still tossed in the trash, said Trevor Langdon, chief executive of Green Standards, a sustainability consulting company that helps reduce office waste. Based on 2018 federal statistics on waste, 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 around 39,000 tonnes of office waste from landfill since the pandemic began.
Brooklyn Office Equipment wasn’t so lucky. In one zigzag motion, the digger’s mouth spun over the half-ton pile of furniture and buckled down, turning the chairs into a dangling metal cephalopod.
Then a worker removed one last chair from the van and gently placed it on the tarmac. Its ergonomic back rest caught the wind for one last spin. Just then, the excavator fell down and the chair exploded into a pile of plastic pieces.
Susan C. Beachy Contributed to research.