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Is This the Beginning of the End for NYC’s Sidewalk Trash Problem?

Trash containerization is on its way—sooner than you think.

9:36 AM EDT on October 12, 2023

(Hell Gate)

How and why did New York City get so filthy? The problem, in one word: inertia. We've been chucking our garbage out on sidewalks for so long that New Yorkers and our elected representatives have gotten used to wallowing in it. It's the same feeling of paralysis you get when you begin to clean your apartment after a massive rager. Where do you even start?

In 2022, Jessica Tisch was appointed the commissioner of the Department of Sanitation, and in her year and a half on the job, she has issued a series of announcements designed to break New York's trash torpor. Businesses that sell food (and large chains that sell everything) now have to containerize their waste, and all businesses will have to do the same by March of 2024. Composting has expanded borough-wide to Brooklyn, and by the end of next year, every resident in the city will be able to put their organic waste out on the curb. A trash containerization pilot in Harlem has shown that yes, New York can have shared receptacles on the street that are emptied by (brand new) trucks.

And on Wednesday, Tisch proclaimed that by the fall of 2024, 95 percent of residential buildings in the city would also have to start putting their trash in containers, including buildings with nine or fewer units (buildings with fewer than six units represent 38 percent of the city's housing stock). The containers, which building owners will be required to purchase from a City-approved vendor, will cost up to $80 but it's a small price to pay to not have leftovers leaching out of plastic bags in front of your home.

While the Sanitation Department still has pathetic rates of recycling (17 percent this year, down from 18 percent in 2019), all of this will represent real progress in the efforts to get trash (and rats) off our streets—if Mayor Eric Adams actually lets it happen.

Because according to a Sanitation Department study, containerizing trash on 89 percent of residential streets will require the City to repurpose 25 percent of the curb space on those streets. That means lots of parking spots must be reclaimed—at least 150,000 of the city's three million—by an administration that does not like to upset drivers. This mayor has made lots of promises about building bus and bike lanes, and has let his chief advisor, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, break them. Hard-won outdoor dining structures are torn down every day and replaced not with bioswales to catch rainwater in a flood, or benches to catch weary travelers on their way to the Instagram tourist trap, but with parking. DSNY's initiatives could be stymied, just like the DOT's.

At Wednesday's announcement, Mayor Adams was asked this very question. Would he stand up for his administration when drivers inevitably complain about losing their parking to trash bins?

"You know, New Yorkers are sensitive about their parking spaces. They're sensitive about everything, trust me, you know, no matter what you do," Adams said with a laugh. "But when you do an analysis of a few parking spaces over the cleanliness, you are clearly hearing from everyday New Yorkers they're tired of the rodents, they're tired of the trash. And this is a small price to pay on ensuring that you can have cleaner streets. And I hear that more than anything. I hear cleanliness of our streets is at the top of the list, with the public safety of our streets."

As the mayor spoke, Lewis-Martin stood behind him, and looked away.

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