A Snowy Winter Highlights New York’s Trash Problems

A Snowy Winter Highlights New York’s Trash Problems

As storm after storm piled several inches of snow over Brooklyn’s streets this month, a familiar complaint emerged on social media: the garbage was getting out of control.

The post-snowstorm pile-up of residential and retail garbage has occurred so consistently, for so long, that it is practically part of New York’s winter cityscape, as ubiquitous as holiday lights and abandoned gloves.

The service delay occurs in part because the sanitation workers who normally collect 12,000 tons of trash and recycling are the same workers who plow and salt streets.

“While residents may put material out following [a] normal schedule,” the city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) recently tweeted, “snow operations take priority and delays are to be expected.”

As of today, DSNY continues to play catch up> on trash pickups that have been delayed for as much as a week.

But even during the seasons when New York isn’t breaking snowfall records, the mountains of waste that accumulate on sidewalks and feed the city’s gargantuan rat population are a consistent quality-of-life issue.

The city’s coronavirus-induced budgetary crisis has exacerbated the city’s trash problem; when Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council cut $106 million from DSNY’s budget in June, pickup for public litter baskets fell by 60%. Composting and e-waste disposal programs were also slashed. A small portion of the litter basket funding was later restored, but only after over 160 business executives signed a letter citing sidewalk cleanliness as one of many concerns posing a serious obstacle to the city’s eventual economic reboot.

The reality is, though, that this is a problem that can be solved—and, in fact, it has been in most of New York’s peer cities.

In Buenos Aires, closed trash bins have been installed in parking spaces. Barcelona has something similar. In fact, as Palak Kaushal wrote in a recent op-ed for City Limits, New York is virtually alone among world cities in its continued use of pedestrian sidewalks as garbage dumps.

“In the 19th century, to prioritize real estate, planners did not build back alleyways for trash collection,” Kaushal explains. “Because of this one planning afterthought, the city has spent decades normalizing dumping black garbage bags on top of each other in a public space.”

There may be some light at the end of this trash-filled tunnel. In March, DSNY announced a new Clean Curbs pilot program in which private entities like Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) can apply for the opportunity to have sealed, on-street containers for trash and recycling storage.

The pilot rollout was delayed several months by the pandemic, but the application finally launched in December.

The program would help keep streets cleaner, and make trash pickup easier after inclement weather. But it’s far from a panacea—for one thing, the onus is on the BIDs and other entities to design, install and maintain these waste units, and of course, many neighborhoods around the city don’t have a BID at all.

Siting may also prove challenging; among the many requirements DSNY has imposed, the containers cannot “interfere with or obstruct access to bicycle facilities, bike share stations, car share spaces, taxi stands, hotel loading zones, subway facilities, utility access points, property access points (curb cuts), hydrants, fire alarms, traffic signals, street signs, bus stops or bus shelters, water main valves or gas shut-off valves, unless permission is obtained from the appropriate City Department or utility.”

Still, it’s something. And the city has taken other small steps toward a cleaner streetscape: at the same time that DSNY first announced the Clean Curbs program, it also created a new rule that requires all new apartment buildings with 300 or more units to use closed waste containers, and requires all new buildings with at least 150 units to submit a waste management plan for city approval.

“City pedestrians navigate around piles of trash and recycling that take up significant sidewalk space,” then-Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said in a statement when the rule was announced. “It is time to make smarter, more efficient choices when it comes to the way New Yorkers set out refuse and recycling for collection in the public right of way.”

Garcia resigned from the role in September, but now she’s running for mayor, and last week she laid out a series of sanitation policies she would advance if given the job.

Though New York is largely behind the curve (or rather, on the curb) on this issue compared to other cities, even here, creative alternatives are already in use: see Battery Park City’s shared compactor strategy, or the uber-futuristic pneumatic tube system that has kept Roosevelt Island clean since 1975.

Comparatively, closed containers and other sidewalk trash solutions should be a walk in the (hopefully cleaner) park.