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Got Commercial Trash? The Sanitation Department Has $20K for Your Project

Welcome to New York, where pedestrians walk amid leaking, stinking garbage bags.

Bin there, done that? Alas, no.

The city is offering five grants of up to $20,000 for projects that help improve waste management in business districts, in what appears to be a bid to kickstart its lagging "Clean Curbs" pilot program — launched two years ago to allow business improvement districts and commercial property owners to use street space for trash containers rather than just filling sidewalks with big black plastic bags.

"New York’s Strongest are seeking to innovate and reimagine refuse pickup in ways that improve the public realm and create more vibrant commercial districts,” Sanitation Commissioner Edward Grayson said in a statement announcing the grants.

According to DSNY, the projects "could include new litter baskets, compactors, enclosures, containers, organics collection, and other waste management equipment and infrastructure."

Clean Curbs envisioned that business improvement districts and commercial property owners, such as apartment houses, could install bins either on the street or below ground, such as in the illustration below:

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
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
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

If $100,000 seems insufficient to hide New York's famous "5 o'clock shadow" of trash mountains, that's because it is indeed insufficient. Cities in countries as diverse as Spain, France, South Korea, Argentina, and the Netherlands for decades have used any number of methods, including below-ground containers, pneumatic tubes, and sorting bins to keep streets clean and garbage out of pedestrians' way. But New York likes to take its time — even if walkers have to wade through trash bags on sidewalks. Last month Grayson confirmed that the long-awaited Clean Curbs pilot would be “very small-scaled, probably one block.”

Clare Mifflin, founder of the Center for Zero Waste Design, said she thought the grants were "to encourage Clean Curbs applications, as there haven't been many," by broadening the program. As usual, she said, the city is putting the onus of devising the projects onto the backs of private interests — a trend in New York that seen in many efforts to pedestrianize commercial districts. The answer? The city should take the initiative and set up the enclosures itself — like other municipalities do.

"I'd rather [DSNY] come up with a city standard for Clean Curbs enclosures that the BIDs could use ... and piloted a few across the city, including in neighborhoods without BIDs or community development organizations, with the city/city partner providing maintenance in cleaning in those districts," she said, adding that $20,000 won't really go far when it comes to designing, fabricating and maintaining such an enclosure.

David Estrada, the executive director of the Sunset Park Business Improvement District in Brooklyn, praised the grant program on the idea that "we need all the tools that we can have at our disposal," but he said that any large-scale containerization effort was out of the reach of a small BID like his. Many BIDs "are struggling to maintain their core services" of sanitation and security after "two incredibly difficult pandemic years," he said, adding that if the city, which often "puts up excessive barriers to doing simple things," wants more applications for programs like Clean Curbs, it would do well to "carve out some of the bureaucratic complexity."

As for DSNY, it has hired a manager for the Clean Curbs program.

"As with other projects, programs and ideas, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but we hope this grant opportunity will spur new Clean Curbs pilot projects and also inform our future planning," said spokesman Joshua Goodman, who added that the manager "just spoke with a BID who is interested in applying for funding for a simple idea, but one that may make a real difference for residents and businesses in its area."

Goodman stressed that "Clean Curbs" is just one of DSNY's efforts on businesses' trash, mentioning commercial-waste zones (the city's program to rationalize the dangerous business of private garbage hauling, to roll out in 2024) and "BetterBin," a litter-basket-redesign pilot.

DSNY is accepting applications for the grants at publicspace@dsny.nyc.gov until April 22. For details, see here. Winners will be selected by May 20.

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