Will NYC Finally Get Garbage Out of Pedestrians’ Way?

This is every afternoon in New York City. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
This is every afternoon in New York City. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

It’s the city’s version of the five o’clock shadow.

Every afternoon, vast stretches of New York City sidewalks become de facto garbage dumps as high-rise maintenance workers, brownstone residents and single-family homeowners toss big black bags of trash onto the sidewalk in anticipation of the next morning’s pickup.

Finally, the departments of Sanitation and Transportation say they’ll do something about it. Both agencies are cooperating on a formal “request for expressions of interest” from community, industry and advocacy groups to help the city find “creative solutions for containerized refuse and recycling” that will increase recycling to reduce how much garbage actually gets put on the streets, while also lowering the amount of miles traveled by carbon-spewing waste collection trucks.

The agencies are now going through the 19 submissions, which were due on May 31. But the goals of the RFEI were so vaguely worded that it’s anyone’s guess whether any of the proposals will be sufficiently bold to fix the persistent problem of garbage-strewn sidewalks, one that is getting worse as some longtime business zones such as Lower Manhattan change.

“Where we have conversion of commercial buildings to residential, that’s a shift in the waste that’s coming out of those buildings,” said Bridget Anderson, the Sanitation Department’s deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability. “That waste wasn’t in the original plan, so we have to consider how we respond to the changing use of the built environment. Loading areas are crucial, which is why DOT is a partner on this RFEI.”

New York City has been struggling with trash ever since the Dutch started making it. By the early 19th century, real estate was at such a premium in the city that planners didn’t bother building back alleys as in other cities, a decision that led to the mounds of trash — 12,000 tons a day, citywide — that we see on today’s sidewalks.

There is, of course, no shortage to solutions to the problem of public trash — forward-thinking, overtly planned communities such as Roosevelt Island, Hudson Yards and Battery Park City all designed nifty ways of hiding trash or moving it along pneumatically — but in the real world, there is a shortage of space.

Or is there?

CHEKPEDS, a venerable livable streets advocacy group in Hells Kitchen, submitted a proposal called TOSS, short for Trash Off Sidewalk Space. As the name suggests, the group wants bagged garbage to be put in the street, rather than in pedestrians’ way.

The plan [PDF] would deploy six “Waste Corrals” on a typical side-street block, with each seven-foot-by-20-foot corral holding roughly 85 bags of trash in the same space as one parked car. It’s an attempt to retip the public right-of-way pendulum back towards pedestrians from drivers who want to store their private cars in public space.

“This is simply taking a parking space and putting the bags there instead of on the sidewalk,” said Christine Berthet, a co-founder of the group. “It would do a lot of good for the pedestrians, plus the Sanitation workers won’t have to go through the cars to get the garbage. This is very basic.”

It’s very basic. In fact, it’s exactly how trash is handled the world over. In many modern cities, residents bring their trash to one or several large containers — sealed to keep out rodents — on their block. Americans may scoff at the loss of convenience, but it is common among urbanites elsewhere.

How they do it in Barcelona. Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reciclatge_Llinars_Catalunya.JPG
How they do it in Barcelona. Photo: Wikimedia

It seems unlikely that the departments of Sanitation and Transportation will take on car owners by fully embracing the CHEKPEDS plan because, Anderson said, New Yorkers wouldn’t likely go for it. In other words, this revolution will not be Sanitized.

“Our intention is not to make residents’ life more difficult at all,” she said. “We want to maintain the convenience factor and if anything, make life more convenient. … We have curbside service. I don’t imagine switching our way of doing business. If individuals [had to] go down the block and drop off the recycling, it might not maximize the amount of recycling. We want recycling and waste to be as convenient as possible. Recycling happens at a much higher rate when it’s convenient.”

Anderson said a likeliest scenario would be collaboration among many buildings on a high-rise block.

“We want building management and building staff to reduce the number of hours they spend on waste,” she added. “And that is about how the building sets up the waste management system, before the waste even gets to the street.”

But under current conditions, the waste never technically even gets to the street. And that’s why most livable streets advocates believe that parking spaces need to be eliminated so that trash ends up in public space that is already being allocated to private storage — currently, mostly automobiles. (The DOT declined to discuss the pilot.)

“Our public right of way deserves better than the status quo,” said Lisa Orman, the co-founder of the Neighborhood Empowerment Project, which works with communities to improve quality of life amid city inaction. “We hope that the city pilots plans that get trash and recycling off our sidewalks, whether that’s in containerized solutions on the street or underground collection sites or something else innovative.”

Anderson said there is hope.

“If a solution would require some parking space, DOT is willing to review it,” she said. “That’s why DOT is involved. We didn’t want to go to DOT after the fact.”

There are many ways to get trash off our sidewalks, as this Zero Waste Design Guideline page shows.
There are many ways to get trash off our sidewalks, as this Zero Waste Design Guideline page shows. Not all are practical.

The overall goal of the RFEI is to reduce the amount of garbage — through prevention, recycling and recovery. The city developed a handbook called the Zero Waste Design Guidelines in 2016 to encourage architects and developers to consider how to handle garbage as an essential part of any new designs. Unfortunately, many of the strategies are pie-in-the-sky ideas for buildings that can’t retrofit with massive garbage-storage areas, pneumatic systems or underground garbage bins like they use in Switzerland.

“Developers and architects have not traditionally thought about waste as a component of their design process,” said Anderson. “If waste is an afterthought, it all ends up at the curb.”

The guidelines did point the way to a solution that CHEKPEDS’ Berthet would likely endorse: “Well-designed drop-off collection points on street corners and public plazas could address inadequate storage in individual buildings,”

“Pedestrians don’t have enough space on the sidewalk,” she said. “No one is going to widen the sidewalk. So let’s get the stuff off the sidewalk!”

Chekpeds – Sanitation Rfei by Gersh Kuntzman on Scribd

  • Guy Ross

    And keep armed vigil against raccoons, rats, dogs, possum…..

  • kevd

    no. definitely not.

  • kevd

    Not to mention the DSNY’s policy of removing sidewalk trash cans (instead of adding more) if they get used too much – resulting in more garbage and more litter.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Widen the sidewalks.

  • bolwerk

    Yes indeed. Frowned upon but not a sin is a fairly accurate description. You don’t see them to the extent you do in New York, and they are less likely to be plastic.

  • 6SJ7

    I’ve only had a problem with cats getting into the bags once or twice.

  • bolwerk

    I do see that in nicer green grocers.

    Speculating, but I’d say the reason is probably that there are mixed results. Probably works pretty well with dried pasta, legumes, whole bean coffee, and pre-ground grains/legumes. Likely works less well with flaked, ground, and processed cereals (especially the sugary ones, another dietary abomination). The clock starts ticking once things are exposed to the atmosphere, and a lot of things sold in supermarkets are nicely vacuum sealed.

    Guessing soda is hard to sell “loose” because it loses its carbonation, which any home beer brewer knows after trying to bottle from his/her own keg. 😉 Anything with sugar or protein spoils quickly, so that makes dispensing milk and a difficult sell.

    I think it’d make more sense to focus on making packaging returnable and recyclable within its own supply chain. That’s another dirty secret of “recycling”: often you’re sending materials to be reused in a less environmentally friendly way the second time around.

  • AMH

    Wonderful! I didn’t realize this was actively being considered although I’ve always thought that it should be. It’s about time!

  • bolwerk

    My anecdotal take is you see people already willing to hoard bottles and cans in New York for the 5¢ bounty. I think the 25¢ bounty in Germany probably discourages a lot of discarding of single use bottles, but of course some people still do it.

    Again, anecdotal: I almost never see recycling lines in Germany. Sometimes one or two people, and a shopping bag of returns would be a lot. I just don’t think the volumes of single-use bottles approaches the U.S., so that probably reduces a lot of consumption. Yes, there is a market for mineral-enhanced and carbonated waters, and these end up in single use containers. Both social norms and government policy discourage use to the same extent in the U.S..

    I’ve seen people with carts and trolleys (think pull cart) of bottles, but not sure I’ve seen that urban American urban gothic visage of the hobo with a shopping cart and three contractor bags full of bottles in Germany. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, though when your turnover can be the equivalent of 4 bottles to €1, you probably exchange sooner. Twenty bottles to $1 in NYC, a very large recycling bag might hold 20 or 30 bottles. 30 bottles in Germany is approaching the hourly German minimum wage, and probably exceeds it when you consider taxes. 😉

  • Larry Littlefield

    Those are the sorts of things I was thinking would have to be included. Property taxes down for the building with the garbage, the same for those on either side, and up for everyone else.

    Plus the city provides exterminators if a bug or rodent problem develops, while the rest of the block is on its own.

  • Joe R.

    Or hopefully the real estate tax reductions could be paid for by labor savings in the DSNY, although I’m sure the unions will fight that tooth and nail.

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