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Sanitation Dept. Urged to Get Garbage out of Pedestrians’ Way

The Department of Sanitation has been promising for two years that New York will get some below-grade trash containers. We’re still waiting. Photo: Marvel Architects and Recycle Track Systems, in partnership with Sam Schwartz Engineering and HR&A Advisors

City Council members and others this week took the departments of Sanitation and Transportation to task for not addressing longstanding discrimination against pedestrians in the form of mountains of leaky, stinky, rodent-prone trash bags that each night make many sidewalks impassable even as private property, in the form of cars, enjoys spacious, free berths curbside.

At a Sanitation oversight hearing the Council held online on Monday, Sanitation Department brass, including Commissioner Edward Grayson, got an earful from committee members and the public about the ever-growing heaps of sidewalk-blocking bags.

They were complaining not just about street conditions, but about departmental torpor: Not a single sealed garbage container has been installed in the streets even though it is has been 19 (nineteen!) months since Sanitation and Transportation officials announced with great fanfare the pilot Clean Curbs program to allow business improvement districts and commercial property owners to use street space for holding containerized trash. The city had blamed COVID-19 and the retrenchment of the commercial real-estate industry, but pols want action.

"Now that we are no longer in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time for the de Blasio administration to get to work on rolling out this initiative," Council Member Antonio Reynoso, the Sanitation Committee chairman, told us, in what is probably a directive for the next mayor. "Once implemented, the Clean Curbs program will combat rats by cutting off their food supply, keep our streets cleaner by containerizing waste, and remove obstructions off of our sidewalks." 

Seconding Reynoso's sentiment was Erik Bottcher, the presumptive Council Member for Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Hells Kitchen.

“New Yorkers are quickly losing patience with the status quo,” said Democratic nominee Bottcher, who is running in the November election on a plan to improve sanitation, including through containerization. "It’s past time that New York City catch up with the rest of the world and modernize our sanitation processes. We need to move faster."

The wheels of bureaucracy, however, turn slowly.

DSNY spokesman Vincent Gragnani last week told us that Clean Curbs (announced in March, 2020) hadn't moved beyond the application phase. "But, like you, we are looking forward to seeing [the containers] on the street!" he added.

In the meantime, he offered a rendering (see above) which Streetsblog first published last year in its story on the pilot (so, clearly, not much has changed). Gragnani reported, however, that DSNY on Sept. 28 posted a job for a public space initiatives "project manager" to get the still-not-moving ball rolling.

Clean Curbs isn't the only get-bags-off-the street initiative that is stalled. A rule that requires all new, 300-plus-unit buildings to set out garbage in sealed containers instead of bags has not gone into effect; it's still being discussed, with "no firm timeline" for implementation, Gragnani said.

The city's problem with garbage on the sidewalks is monumental and ancient, dating back at least to the 19th century, before there were cars. Because space on the island of Manhattan was at such a premium, New York, unlike other American cities, never developed a system of back alleys where solid waste could be stored before collection. Since the advent in the 1950s of free overnight car storage along the curbs — which had previously been illegal — New Yorkers have mostly put garbage on the sidewalk, earning us the unfortunate reputation as one of the dirtiest metropolises of the developed world. It's a particularly onerous reputation, given that sidewalks are often narrow and there is so much space in the street that is occupied by stored private property (cars).

By contrast, many modern cities, notably Barcelona, have installed sealed, midblock, curbside containers in order to centralize trash collection from residents. Meanwhile, the problem of garbage on New York sidewalks has only increased with the growth of e-commerce and the pandemic (more packaging! More online shopping by homebound New Yorkers!)

Gothamites have certainly noticed the oppression of pedestrians in this supposedly pedestrian-friendly city. At the hearing, speaker after speaker complained about the hazards of bags on the sidewalks, citing issues of egress, smell and, of course, vermin.

Grayson responded that businesses and homes, including multi-family dwellings, simply could containerize their own waste.

"If you put it out in a can, I'm picking it up either way," he said, although city rules prohibit  putting cans in the curbside space  if it impedes parking.

But others demanded government action.

Kalvis Mikelsteins, the director of operations of the DUMBO BID, pleaded for the extension of Clean Curbs — which, remember, hasn't even started — to residential properties.

"The amount of trash and recycling bags put out for collection by medium- and large-scale residential properties is ever-increasing, particularly as online ordering and delivery continue to grow," Mikelsteins, said, describing a "Mad Max" streetscape in which piles of "hazardous" and "unsightly" bags — often augmented by illegal dumping — prevented parents pushing strollers from safely navigating sidewalks and even spilled off curbs to block bike lanes, forcing cyclists into traffic.

Christine Berthet, the pedestrian activist whose guerrilla garbage corral inspired a Streetfilm and several Streetsblog articles, underscored the need to move quickly on residential buildings. If "commercial landlords are not inclined to invest in new infrastructure while they are hemorrhaging money, it points to the need to urgently kick off a residential program, where the volumes have ballooned during COVID," she said

Gragnani, the Sanitation spokesman, said the department could not offer any timeline for when the pilot might be extended to residential buildings, because DSNY needs "to make sure it works and is scalable" with the commercial buildings.

 It will be too little, too late, as always, and will require a quantity that, unlike garbage, is too often in short supply.

"The city needs to develop a comprehensive plan to containerize waste, and it will require mayoral leadership to coordinate city agencies and private stakeholders," said Clare Miflin, part of the team that developed the Zero Waste Design Guidelines at the Center for Zero Waste Design. She said the group is about to launch a "Put Waste to Work" campaign to show how to get trash bags off streets and compost into the soil.

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