How New York City Hopes to Win Its Long, Losing War on Trash

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“Did you get that?”

It was a steamy July morning on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, and a man in a rat mask was being filmed for the New York Department of Sanitation’s TikTok account. The plot involved Buddy the Rat and an unnamed raccoon character attempting to break into a three-foot-tall trash shed — the city’s latest weapon in its long, losing war on trash.

The people filming nodded. They got the shot.

For the city, social media campaigns and rat-resistant receptacles are just the latest attempts to solve a New York City quandary that is more than a century old: What do you do with millions of people’s trash every day?

The city’s Clean Curbs pilot program involves a deceptively simple proposal for dealing with the bags of trash that New Yorkers often see waiting to be picked up on sidewalks and corners: Put them in a bin.

Sanitation officials placed a few sealed, rat-resistant sheds for trash bags in front of businesses in late June and mid-July. There are two sheds near Times Square and two on Montague Street.

The containers are from the Brooklyn-based company Citibin, and more are on the way — a pilot program for residential blocks will roll out in the fall, starting in Hell’s Kitchen.

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For over 150 years, New York has been trying to tackle its trash problem.
Credit...George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

“It’s not a silver bullet,” said Joshua Goodman, the assistant commissioner for public affairs at the Department of Sanitation. Still, containerization — storing bags of trash in containers instead of leaving them on the curb for pickup — could make streets and sidewalks cleaner. So the city is currently conducting a test across all five boroughs.

“We’re moving ahead with a $1.3 million plan to pilot bins of different kinds and configurations,” Mr. Goodman said. “And that means both the bin itself as well as what’s inside it and how it gets serviced.”

Experimenting with ways to tackle trash is not new. An article published in The New York Times in August 1873 listed which specific blocks were “unclean with street dirt, rubbish and garbage.”

Almost a century later, in 1967, a Times headline declared that the “City Is Fighting a Losing Battle Against Garbage-Strewn and Littered Streets.”

In its never-ending battle against refuse, the city has dealt with protests and strikes, as well as job cuts to the Sanitation Department, all while attempting to upgrade its weapons in the fight: In 1961, it gave scooters to sanitation workers so they could track down “litterbugs,” as a promising 20-something writer named Gay Talese reported at the time. In 1969, the city started putting garbage in plastic bags; a few years later, it introduced new, supposedly better trash cans.

Still, the problems persisted. Even New York’s recycling program has at times proved difficult to manage.

For Clean Curbs, the city has issued specifications for the type of container to be used, and so far, the sheds made by Citibin are the ones being tested. Among other requirements, the containers must be nonflammable and fully enclosed, and they must not obstruct hydrants or crosswalks. Citibins come in multiple sizes, with different numbers of lockable doors.

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Credit...Sebastian Mejias for The New York Times

Recently, The New York Post reported that one of the bins in Times Square was leaking garbage juice into the street. “Tweaks are continuing through the pilot. That’s what a pilot is about,” said Liz Picarazzi, the founder and chief executive of Citibin. Everything from the screws and latches to the leveling feet are being tested and refined, and the design is modular. The bin sitting on West 41st Street has already had its doors replaced.

There are just so many challenges. “This gets at a handful of ways that New York is not harder than other cities, but just different,” Mr. Goodman said. “And why you can’t necessarily just copy-paste what exists elsewhere.”

The Sanitation Department has around 10,000 employees, making it the country’s largest municipal trash-hauling agency. Each worker lifts roughly 10 tons of trash or recycling per day. Working for the department is one of the most dangerous jobs in the city. Lifting and throwing garbage bags takes a physical toll, and about once a month, Mr. Goodman said, a sanitation worker is threatened or assaulted. Then there’s the honking by impatient drivers trapped behind trash-collection trucks.

A pilot program like Clean Curbs comes with many variables. Mr. Goodman articulated some of the many questions involved with placing trash in a container for pickup: How big does the container need to be? Can it stand up to the weather year-round? Who is responsible for digging it out after a snowstorm? Does the container work with the city’s trash pickup procedures or do changes need to be made? Should the doors of the shed open toward the street or should they lift up? Are combination locks the way to go? What about locks with keys?

After answering those questions you then have to consider what people actually throw away.

“I’d be curious to do a waste audit and see what exactly is in those bins,” said Anna Sacks, an environmental activist and waste expert who posts on TikTok as The Trashwalker.

Ms. Sacks said she would like to see sidewalks cleared of trash bags, but she had some concerns about the container proposal. She expects the bins in the pilot would hold mostly “single-use disposable coffee cups, for example. Which points to the need for reuse. You should have these reusable cup systems.”

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Credit...Sebastian Mejias for The New York Times

In addition, Ms. Sacks wondered about the New Yorkers who survive on what is left at the curb. “We need to think through the impact on people who make their income redeeming the cans,” she said.

Ms. Sacks, whose videos often detail the food, clothing and electronics that stores and schools dispose of, was also concerned about the secondhand economy. If containerization spreads all over New York City, she said, “Usable items on the curb are no longer going to be accessible.”

Lane Shepherd, a baker at L’Appartement 4F on Montague Street, said that when the new bins showed up outside the bakery, he found them “absolutely more attractive to look at” than a pile of plastic garbage bags but, he added, “I just didn’t understand how it was going to work on a large scale.”

Many commercial buildings, especially high-rises, generate a lot more refuse than can possibly fit inside a regular four-door Citibin. Mr. Goodman said that the city would encourage commercial properties to explore containerization, or to store trash in a basement or on a loading dock before pickup, instead of the sidewalk.

The Department of Sanitation is also planning to require residences and business to put bags out later in the day — 8 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. — to minimize the number of hours that rats have access to them.

As the pilot continues, containers may start popping up on more and more blocks around the city. Neighborhoods with Business Improvement Districts would see bags from street litter baskets contained in a Citibin before pickup, and on certain residential streets, landlords and superintendents may opt in for a mid-block bin.

Back on Montague Street on a recent morning, the Citibin sat ready to be serviced.

It had four waist-high doors and two planters, each with bright blooming flowers.

A sanitation truck rolled up and two workers descended. They unlocked the four padlocks, opened all the doors and briskly removed the bags of litter inside, throwing them into the back of a white collection truck.

One bag had a small tear, and a bit of mystery liquid dribbled out onto the pavement. The workers turned back to the shed and locked the doors, one by one.

For a few seconds, a worker fumbled with the padlock, his bulky gloves making it difficult to get a good grip. But soon, both men were back in the truck and on their way down the street, with only an oozing sliver of watermelon rind left behind.

Afterward, Djana Hughes, who is employed by the Montague Street Business Improvement District, approached the Citibin with a broom and a dustpan to tidy up. As she swept in back of the shed, she made a noise of alarm: “Oh!”

Using the broom and dustpan like tongs, she removed a dead rat, the chubby body of which was easily a foot long, from beneath the shed and disposed it in the plastic trash can on wheels she had been pushing. The rat did not get inside the Citibin, but it had died trying.

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Credit...Sebastian Mejias for The New York Times
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