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City Launches Long-Awaited Containerized Residential Trash Pilot

Historic haul: DSNY workers collect garbage from containers on W. 45th Street during the first day of the year-long residential Clean Curbs pilot on Dec. 13. Photo: Kevin Duggan

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It's history in the taking.

The Department of Sanitation at last began collecting household trash from containers along a single Hells Kitchen block on Tuesday, bringing the Big Apple one small but important step closer to freeing pedestrians from the oppression of mountains of garbage bags covering the sidewalk.

The project is part of the city's Clean Curbs residential pilot, which will test the feasibility of having residents of W. 45th Street between Ninth and 10th avenues place their garbage not on the sidewalk, but in containers in the curbside lane, where sanitation workers will pick it up.

Officials set up nearly four dozen locked steel enclosures in space formerly reserved for private vehicle storage, with several containers set aside for trash and recyclables.

DSNY will come around for pickups three times a week, including once for recycling, and only the agency and building supers have access to the bins, which either have a combination lock or a key lock.

New York City has struggled to get its act together to collect trash from its 8.8 million residents without leaving the rubbish to sit out in the open, providing a terrible experience for pedestrians, but a great life for rats.

Other cities around the globe, including similarly dense municipalities like Paris, have figured out solutions. There are even examples closer to home that have worked for decades, such as on Roosevelt Island whose 16 residential buildings have used pneumatic tubes and compactors to store and move waste since the 1970s, or Battery Park City, which is managed by a state authority and also uses compactors and large containers.

Officials announced the small-scale initiative to roll out the bins in early 2020, which also includes containerization trials for commercial waste that launched in April with business groups across the five boroughs, including near Times Square, on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, and on Staten Island's North Shore.

The agency clearly hopes to expand the pilot, having hired the consulting firm McKinsey in October to conduct a 24-week, nearly $4-million study looking at scaling up containerization and scaling down rat girth.

The initiatives are still just incremental moves for the nation's largest sanitation department, but advocates who watched the first pickups in the wee hours of Dec. 13 were hopeful.

"It’s the beginning of a new era," said longtime local community activist Christine Berthet, who with her pedestrian safety advocacy group CHEKPEDS helped organize W. 45th Street to get all the buildings on board with the program.

Containing multitudes: The trash boxes keep the sidewalks free of garbage backs. Photo: Kevin Duggan
Containing multitudes: The trash boxes keep the sidewalks free of garbage backs. Photo: Kevin Duggan
Containing multitudes: The trash boxes keep the sidewalks free of garbage backs. Photo: Kevin Duggan

Berthet and other activists were so fed up with trash on the sidewalk in 2020, that they resorted to setting up a guerrilla garbage corral along W. 38th Street to give more space to pedestrians. (The Department of Transportation later told Berthet and her neat freaks to cease and desist.)

Now, the Manhattanite marveled at the trash-free sidewalks around the bins, which was unheard of on collection days past.

However, some of the containers had already become so full that supers had to put some bags next to them in the street.

At one of the sets of bins, most of the bags were outside of the containers, and a building worker told Streetsblog he hadn't been aware that collection was beginning this week.

Supers for one group of buildings apparently didn't get the memo that they could start using the bins on Dec. 13. Photo: Kevin Duggan
Supers for one group of buildings apparently didn't get the memo that they could start using the bins on Dec. 13. Photo: Kevin Duggan
Supers for one group of buildings apparently didn't get the memo that they could start using the bins on Dec. 13. Photo: Kevin Duggan

Brooklyn-based company CITIBIN makes the steel containers and began setting them up in the last weeks along W. 45th. The firm's chief said she'll be working with DSNY on each minute detail, like which type of lock works best without adding too much time.

"It’s been a really long time coming," said CITIBIN's founder and CEO Liz Reisch Picarazzi. "[Sanitation's] feedback is so important, like is this going to slow them down."

The first collection truck rolled up just before 7 a.m., and a pair of New York's Strongest hopped out to begin unlocking the bins. They then hurled the bags into the back of the hauler, much as they normally do on other streets.

It took the two men some 40 minutes to do the whole block, twice the usual 15-20 minutes they need to cover a street without opening and closing the containers.

The two history-making Sanitation workers, Trevor Evelyn and Jerome Miller, said they preferred the combination locks, because the ones with keys could jam in the cold and will require them to keep a key on hand.

But overall, the first impressions were positive.

"They’re good, they’re clean inside," Evelyn told Streetsblog.

A porter agreed as he set out bags at the western end of the street.

"I think it’s a very good idea," said Jose Lopez. "It will help the city control the rats and the spread of garbage on the streets."

DSNY spokesperson Vincent Gragnani said containerization will be a "massive undertaking for a diverse city of 8.8 million people.

"We look forward to reviewing data from the various containerization initiatives once complete," he added.

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