As the summertime stench reminds us, New York City handles garbage all wrong.
When the sun beats down, the familiar odor of rotting garbage returns to New York City streets. Residents and businesses together put about 15 billion pounds on the curb every year, and as it sits there awaiting pickup the following morning, New Yorkers and visitors alike slip by the imposing, depressing mounds with justifiable worries that a rat may scuttle across their feet.
All this just could finally change in the foreseeable future, because we have a mayor and a City Council who say they have had enough of the rats and litter caused by exposed garbage bags. The Department of Sanitation has just released the city’s first-ever study of how to containerize waste.
Could this be one of our last smelly summers? Could New York finally manage to integrate an efficient, rat-resistant and pleasant waste-collection system into our urban streetscape — as Paris, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and many other cities have done?
As the founder of the Center for Zero Waste Design and the former director of policy planning for the Department of Sanitation, we believe that it can only happen if smart containerization is part of a larger vision. The keys are adopting a comprehensive approach that reduces waste in the first place, thinking creatively about how best to integrate waste management into buildings and streetscapes, then convincing New Yorkers that doing things differently is worth it. Simply focusing on downstream solutions and rushing to roll out ill-considered pilots won’t accomplish much of anything.
Why trash mountain?
Piling up big black bags on the curb is not the only way to dispose of household and business garbage. New York is an ugly anomaly among American cities and great international cities alike.
It’s a problem, partly, of design. Most other U.S. cities, like Chicago and Philadelphia, have alleyways where garbage can go to await pickup; the men who designed Manhattan’s grid in 1811 didn’t give us such spaces. Continuous street facades — with few loading docks or parking garages — create a lively, walkable city, but they make it hard to hide the trash.
Oscar the Grouch-style metal cans were once the norm; New York City started using black plastic for garbage during a sanitation strike in 1968. With garbage filling the streets, the plastics industry saw an opportunity and donated 200,000 plastic bags to help clean things up. The new way proved quieter and easier to lift than the old, and so, it caught on. In the following decades, as the city mandated the closure of apartment-house incinerators to abate air quality complaints, buildings replaced them with bagging compactors, which added still more bags to the sidewalk piles.
Many other cities across the world, for example, Paris, Barcelona or Hong Kong, were designed with continuous street facades and no alleyways, but in them, there are no piles of bags on the sidewalks (except when a sanitation strike hits). Instead, they have designed systems that allow waste to be stored in containers and collected using mechanized trucks, with little impact on public space. Some, for example, Barcelona, Bergen (in Norway) or Singapore, even have pneumatic tubes that suck trash underground, larger versions of the brilliant but difficult-to-retrofit system New York built on Roosevelt Island.
Until recently, Sanitation Department officials just shrugged their shoulders about the trash dump all around us — without alleyways and with solid lines of cars parked along the curb, what could be done differently?
Oscar the Grouch-style metal cans were once the norm; New York City started using black plastic for garbage during a sanitation strike in 1968.
It turns out, plenty. When the Center for Architecture invited them to the design table to explore how the city could be better designed for managing the flow of trash, they — along with the Departments of Transportation and City Planning, building staff, urban designers, architects, waste consultants and haulers — eagerly took part in conversations. These led to the release of the Zero Waste Design Guidelines in 2017 — the first time that the city started thinking about how the design of streets and buildings could help solve its waste woes.
To be sure, New York, with its areas of high population density and complex range of building types, presents a tougher problem than many other places. But a solution can be designed.
The future of trash
Now is the moment to push. COVID produced a fresh appreciation for the potential use of streets for purposes other than private cars. Dirty streets and vermin, always an issue, got worse, especially in poor neighborhoods, where few buildings have enough staff to clean sidewalks and there are no Business Improvement District sanitation crews.
So in August 2022, Mayor Adams agreed to fund the first-ever serious attempt to consider the practicalities of eliminating piles of trash bags from sidewalks. His Sanitation Department’s April 2023 “Future of Trash” report looks at how cities in Europe and Asia solved the problem and asks whether their solutions might work for New York’s streets.
Their short answer is “yes, mostly.” The report determined that half the streets in the five boroughs (those with detached homes or one-to-six-unit rowhouses) could use standardized two-wheeled bins, which could be mechanically lifted by retrofitting the city’s current trucks. Most of the other streets — most of Manhattan and the denser parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens — could use shared stationary containers, for which the city would need to buy new trucks (since its current fleet could not be adapted to accommodate automated side-loading). The report took a thorough look at the volumes of waste the city generates and the types of shared containers and trucks used elsewhere, but it didn’t start the process of designing a solution.
They consider the remaining 11% of the city — streets with the biggest piles of bags and narrow sidewalks — impracticable for containerized collection. This is a mistake for reasons we’ll soon explain.
While the smaller two-wheeled containers serving the smaller buildings would take up little or no curbside space, the shared containers serving larger buildings — half a million of them in total — would take up 150,000 parking spaces and might use up to a quarter of curb space on a given block. This will be very expensive and, to say the least, a tough lift politically.
With a creative and integrated approach to the problem, we believe there’s a solution in reach that would accommodate all of the city’s waste, take up much less curb space and cost much less. It could also help the city achieve climate goals and catalyze a long-overdue transformation of our streets.
A better way to store waste on streets An animation by the Center for Zero Waste Design
Job one: Think comprehensively
Since the 1970s, “reduce, reuse, recycle” has been a waste-management mantra. Planning for the future of trash must incorporate these priorities — because the first, best way to eliminate the blight of bags that fills our streets is to produce less garbage in the first place.
We’ve understood this well enough in other realms. The Department of Environmental Protection achieved a 46% reduction in water use per person since 1979 through strategic initiatives including transitioning to unit-based charges rather than a flat fee based on building frontage. Multiple local laws and incentive programs have been devised to reduce energy use in buildings.
Yet when it was suggested that providing containers for 150% of current waste volumes was too much, this was the Sanitation Department’s response: “We do not want to build a system that hopes for something we cannot control — we have an obligation to provide the free, unlimited service of trash collection.” Maintaining this approach will result in an oversized, overpriced system that has less support from New Yorkers and misses valuable opportunities to meet other New York City goals.
The first, best way to eliminate the blight of bags that fills our streets is to produce less garbage in the first place.
One of these is the “zero waste to landfill by 2030” goal adopted by Mayor Bill de Blasio back in 2015. That target date is now just seven years away — and the trash piles are just getting higher. (The City Council has just passed a package of zero waste bills that aim to get us back on the right track.)
There are urgent climate goals to reach, too. As the latest PlaNYC recognizes, 27% of the city’s emissions come from the production and consumption of our food. Reducing food waste, and separating it from trash so it doesn’t end up in the landfill spewing methane, will help here. The mayor has committed to expanding curbside organics collection citywide by October 2024, and the Council has just passed a bill making that separation of organics mandatory. We think the city should also vastly expand community-based composting in parks and green spaces citywide, for the multiple additional benefits composting brings.
But how can the city reduce waste in the first place? Financial incentives are a key strategy used by other cities, and containerization makes them easier to implement. The system proposed in New York City’s 2015 OneNYC plan was called “Save-As-You-Throw” (SAYT) because it would allow waste-conscious buildings to save money relative to their current tax payments. Implementing SAYT at a building scale with wheeled bins is straightforward since the charge could be based on the number and size of bins. Applying the system to shared containers would require study. It could include technologies that measure the amount of waste deposited, or, alternatively, offer incentives at a block or district scale.
Supporting a circular economy based on reuse, borrowing and repair is another way to reduce waste, create new jobs and lessen the impacts of trucks for the deliveries of new goods and collecting of waste. Reusable cup and takeout programs can also reduce the estimated 67% of litter coming from single-use food and beverage containers. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws — designed to make those who make the products we consume and ultimately throw away bear appropriate responsibility for their end-of-life management (by paying their fair share of processing or disposal costs and by designing, manufacturing and distributing them in ways that reduce waste volumes and increase the ease of recycling) — are another important policy mechanism. EPR bills failed to achieve passage in the state legislative session that just ended but are likely to be reintroduced next year.
These aren’t progressive pipe dreams; they’re pragmatic. In Seoul, similar strategies reduced waste generation by 40% and almost doubled their diversion rate to 68%. (New York’s diversion rate has been stuck below 20% for decades.) In Paris, a circular economy plan provides a model for how municipal-level collaborative efforts — to support increased on-site composting, reuse and repair centers, package-free stores and food recovery initiatives — can produce significant reductions in waste, as well as other social, public health, economic and environmental benefits.
Job two: Think nimbly
While we agree that shared containers in the curb lane are an essential part of the solution and are a better use of space than parking, the system shouldn’t take up more public space than necessary. Private buildings can be built or modified to manage waste more efficiently internally, to minimize the space needed on the street. Just as the city worked with building owners to install equipment within buildings, such as low-flow toilets or energy-efficient light bulbs, and has incentivized and required changes within buildings to reduce the usage of water and energy, it needs to do the same for waste. Incentivizing or requiring compaction equipment, for example, would produce significant savings in the amount of storage space required.
While the trash rooms in large buildings may now be filled to the ceiling with bags, by adding compaction equipment and balancing collection schedules, those floor-to-ceiling piles would fit into four-wheeled bins that could be rolled to a temporary staging space prior to collection. And later that day, the same space could be used for staging deliveries or commercial waste.
Small plug-in cardboard balers can flatten bags of empty boxes to a tenth of the size. Bagging compactors at the bottom of trash chutes are currently set for low compaction, so that the bags are light enough for workers to lift; if the compactors are modified to feed into wheeled bins, the compaction ratio can be doubled. Another form of “compaction” may be used for food scraps — by converting them into a fertilizer (as The Peninsula in the Bronx does) or by squeezing out the water to create a product ideal for composting (as done in Domino Park).
In addition to the 11% of streets that the sanitation report deems too densely populated to accommodate waste containers, it also found commercial businesses too problematic for containerized collection. (Weeks later, the mayor announced a plan to require food businesses to set out their waste in containers with lids, which could be left permanently on the sidewalk.)
That’s not right. With thoughtful implementation of commercial waste franchise zones, a long-delayed revolution in business trash pickup that could begin next year, all businesses could use individual or shared containers, leading to savings for both haulers and customers.
Job three: Design it into streetscapes
The public conversation has to be about more than rats and parking versus trash containers. Containerization needs to be part of a much broader vision for making streets work better, and for that, we need designers who understand how to change streets for the better. Design studio WXY architecture + urban design, working with the 25x25 coalition to envision new uses for streets, has developed a plan to perfect the New York street. Principal Claire Weisz stresses the importance of “true collaboration between city officials, community advocates and private industry to come up with an integrated design solution for our streets and sidewalks and in our buildings.”
While we agree that shared containers in the curb lane are an essential part of the solution and are a better use of space than parking, the system shouldn’t take up more public space than necessary.
Before being launched citywide, any proposed solution needs to be fine-tuned through pilot programs, which are best developed with the engagement of neighborhood groups. This coordination allows potential problems and benefits to be identified and understood, as demonstrated in this initiative to better manage waste on Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Avenue.
Unfortunately, the sole pilot mentioned in the city’s report — using large wheeled dumpsters docked at the curb in Upper Manhattan — bears too little resemblance to the containers actually proposed to bring useful insights. Standard dumpsters (like those seen in alleyways or behind strip malls) are ugly and difficult to maneuver, and it is unpleasant to open their large flap lids. In contrast, the stationary containers proposed have foot pedals and vertical openings so residents can easily throw in a bag without touching a dirty lid or seeing what’s inside. If residents protest the siting of dumpsters in front of their buildings and don’t use them, it runs the real risk of turning the public against the whole containerization process.
A better strategy would be to start by piloting options that offer possibilities for genuine, broadly replicable success within an integrated streetscape design — such as the proposed side-loading stationary containers, (which could be imported along with a few trucks, as NYCHA are doing for their hoist container pilot) or standardized two-wheeled bins in low-density neighborhoods and four-wheeled bins for large buildings (for which lifts could be added to existing trucks).
Mayor Adams deserves credit for the first-ever plan to get rid of the city’s sidewalk garbage heaps. But if the ultimate proposed solution is too expensive and doesn’t convince New Yorkers of the range of benefits it would achieve, it may be bound for the recycling bin itself.
With a little more vision and pragmatism, containerization can do so much more than hide the trash. Let’s just do it right.
A Time for Work