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Department of Sanitation

‘White Whale’: Sanitation Launches Call for European-style Curbside Bins

The city's search for its first standard curbside trash container is officially underway, Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch announced Friday.

Photo: Kevin Duggan|

Sanitation leaders showed off what the curbside containers could look like in February.

Paging Captain Ahab.

Garbage containers commonplace in metropolises across the world are finally coming to the Big Apple after Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch kickstarted the city’s "white whale" search on Friday for a company to deliver tens of thousands of curbside bins in the coming years.

“That has historically been the white whale of containerization in New York City. But the news today is, we have figured it out,” Tisch said during an interview on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show.

Tisch's agency on Friday released a request for proposals for companies to manufacture, install and maintain on-street containers for buildings with 31 or more units, which officials will roll out by district starting next year in West Harlem.

The uptown neighborhood already has a pilot program for curbside container collection that the Sanitation Department launched in September.

The pilot uses retrofitted rear-loader trucks to pick up wheeled bins from the street. Rat sightings in the area are down 68 percent since the pilot began, Tisch said Friday. 

Once DSNY selects a contractor this fall, it will upgrade the wheeled bins to stationary containers and use all-new side-loader trucks — which Mayor Adams showed off at a press conference last month — to hoist the bins into the trucks.

The first phase for curbside containers at buildings with 31 or more units will launch next spring in Manhattan Community Board 9. DSNY expects to deploy between 600 and 1,500 containers to cover the area's larger buildings. The city will fund the district's rollout with $700,000 per year, according to the RFP.

Citywide, the agency projects it will have to purchase between 44,000 and 69,000 containers. The containers will come in two size ranges of between 2.6 and 4.2 cubic yards — the smaller size a little larger than common 2-cubic-yard dumpsters. 

Beginning this fall, DSNY will require smaller buildings with one to nine units to use wheelie bins on the sidewalk. Advocates have raised concerns that those bins could crowd out already scarce sidewalk space and should instead go in the roadway along the curb as is the plan for the largest category of building.

Residents in housing stock with 10 to 30 apartments will be able to choose between wheelie bins on the sidewalk or stationary curbside enclosures.

DSNY will assign each curbside container to a specific building and only the superintendent will have access, according to Tisch, who said they chose that model after studying other cities where shared containers spilled over. 

“Often when you see containers overflowing in Barcelona or in Italy, for example, that is because the containers are shared — so anyone can put the trash into containers,” Tisch said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. “We have the benefit of not being the first major city in the world to do this. In fact, we're going to be one of the last.”

Waste experts said the city was moving in the right direction, but ought to fine-tune its efforts.

Clare Miflin, an architect and the founder of Center for Zero Waste Design, suggested large buildings could roll their trash from their compactor rooms in big-wheeled bins to the curb and back inside, thereby freeing up the street space for other uses during the rest of the day and week.

"It’s great to move bags from trash on the sidewalk to containers in the street," Miflin said. "I’m frustrated because it could be done better."

The current container plans also only cover trash — recyclables will still go in bags on the sidewalk — and Miflin worried that buildings will divert less paper and plastic because they can sneak those into the curbside garbage bins any day rather than wait for specific pickup days.

"I don’t want it to jeopardize our zero-waste goals," she said.

New York’s Strongest began its effort to rid the city of its notorious five o'clock shadow of trash bags when DSNY released a detailed report on the topic nearly a year ago. 

The study found that almost all the city’s trash could go into containers as long as Mayor Adams maintains the political will to repurpose 150,000 spots currently dedicated to the storage of private vehicles, largely for free — which accounts for about 5 percent of the city's estimated 3 million on-street spaces.

One caller into the morning radio talk show Friday expressed support for trash containerization — but worried that thieves may steal smaller wheeled bins, something that she said happened at her Brooklyn brownstone. 

“There's no way we're going to continue to keep buying these bins every time they're stolen,” said the listener, Amber from Crown Heights. “So I love the idea, but there has to be something else because it's not taking into account that people are desperate, and they will steal anything that isn't permanently affixed.”

Tisch noted that the agency has already rolled out containers for commercial waste across the city and that theft “seems not to be a chronic problem.”

The trash chief added that the city will release a city-issued wheelie bin at “far-below market price,” saying the municipal bins will start at “substantially below” $50 for the most common size. 

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