Why New York’s Giant Trash Bag Piles May Be an Endangered Species

New York City, where sidewalks have long been overrun by foul-smelling heaps of garbage bags that force passers-by to yield to oncoming rat traffic, is about to try a not-so-novel idea to solve the problem.

The concept, known as trash containerization, seems simple enough: Get trash off the streets and into containers. The strategy has been used successfully in cities across Europe and Asia, like Barcelona and Singapore.

But in New York, nothing is that simple.

In a highly anticipated new report being released on Wednesday, city sanitation officials estimate that it would be possible to move trash to containers on 89 percent of the city’s residential streets. To do so, however, will require removing 150,000 parking spots, and up to 25 percent of parking spots on some blocks.

The report does not address the cost of implementing trash containerization citywide, but it could easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade. City officials must buy new specialized trash trucks and stationary containers, while also increasing the frequency of trash collection in large swaths of the city.

The new approach could revolutionize trash collection in New York. Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat in his second year in office, has said attacking trash is one of his priorities, framing it as part of broader efforts to improve quality of life in the city after the disruption of the pandemic. He has hired a new rat czar with a “killer instinct” for slaying rats.

But embracing trash containers will require trade-offs, including sacrificing more parking spots than were taken for outdoor dining or the city’s popular bike-share program — both of which stirred pockets of outrage.

The city’s sanitation commissioner, Jessica Tisch, said in a statement that sanitation officials were working hard to remove trash more quickly, including setting new hours for placing trash on the curb, and that trash containerization was the critical next step.

“Mayor Adams wants a permanent solution, something like what other global cities have that takes our sidewalks back from the black bags — and from the rats,” she said. “The detailed street-level analysis in this report shows, for the first time, that containerization — in the form of individual bins and shared containers — actually is viable across the vast majority of the five boroughs.”

The containers would be placed on the street, requiring the city to eliminate as many as 150,000 parking spots.Credit…NYC Department of Sanitation

The new trash program would look different across the city depending on the block. For a single-family home in eastern Queens, residents could be required to use individual bins for trash, recycling and compost. On a block lined with six-story apartment buildings in northern Manhattan, the street could get a dozen large aboveground containers — artist renderings suggest a cross between a dumpster and a giant laundry bin — placed in parking spaces.

By this fall, the city will start a major new pilot program in West Harlem, in Community Board 9, that will install large trash containers in parking spots on up to 10 residential blocks and at more than a dozen schools. On residential blocks, trash collection will double from three times a week to six.

At a time when Mr. Adams is cutting spending across city agencies, he included more than $5.6 million for the pilot program in his latest executive budget proposal — a sign of his commitment to the idea, city officials said.

Shaun Abreu, a City Council member who represents West Harlem, said in a statement that he was excited for the neighborhood to be a part of the pilot program and that it would “make a real difference and teach the city a lot about the path forward.”

The city’s 95-page new report examined trash containerization in cities across the world that have been experimenting with the idea for 15 years and analyzed the program’s feasibility in each neighborhood. In the United States, San Francisco and Chicago remove garbage bags from the streets, mostly using individual bins and Chicago’s famed alleyways which New York City does not have.

Mayor Eric Adams has made tackling the city’s growing trash problem a priority of his administration.Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

New York City is a bit of a global pariah when it comes to trash. On garbage days in Manhattan, towers of fetid trash bags line the streets, with food and liquids oozing on to sidewalks. Sanitation workers carry out the Sisyphean task of carting away 24 million pounds of trash and recycling every day.

Other cities have successfully reined in their garbage. Amsterdam uses underground storage and electric boats. Singapore and other cities use a pneumatic pressure chute system. Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Paris rely on shared and individual trash containers, providing the most useful examples of what is possible in New York, city officials said.

The report was written by Sanitation Department staffers and informed by a study by McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, that was initially reported to cost $4 million. The city ultimately paid McKinsey & Company $1.6 million for the study, city officials said.

Ms. Tisch said in an interview that it was too early to provide an estimate for the total cost. But she acknowledged that the cost was “not inexpensive.”

“It is one of the most massive, complicated infrastructure programs this city can undertake over the next decade because it affects every borough, every neighborhood, every block and frankly every resident in the City of New York,” she said.

Parking is one of the third rails of New York City politics, and the plan could face pushback in some communities. The city has roughly 3 million free street parking spots. Trash containerization would remove up to 10 percent of available parking spots on residential streets citywide, compared to less than 1 percent of parking spots removed for outdoor dining. Citi Bike, the city’s bike-share program, has taken about half of a percent of curb space in its service area for bike docks, according to the company.

On 11 percent of the city’s most densely populated residential streets in places like Lower Manhattan, the city found that it was not feasible to install containers because there was not enough street space for the trash produced in those areas.

Last year, Mr. Adams announced a smaller pilot program called “Clean Curbs” that placed shared trash containers at 40 locations across the city, including on a block in Times Square. The pilot was not the right model for the city because it required manual collection of trash bags by sanitation workers, the report found.

For a citywide model, sanitation officials want to use automated trucks known as “automatic side loading” models that are not widely available in North America, but are used in Europe, the report said. City officials will develop a new truck based on the European model, but that could take several years. The Harlem pilot will use retrofitted sanitation trucks.

Commercial trash from office buildings and restaurants is handled separately from homes, and much of it is taken way by private hauling companies — an industry that has received a wave of criticism and is being overhauled. As part of containerization, city officials want to eventually require businesses to place their trash in sealed containers.

When Mr. Adams announced the hiring of his rat czar last month, he lectured New Yorkers on picking up dog excrement — part of a new ad campaign — and warned that more changes were coming. The mayor said he was immersed in the details of finding the right design for new trash trucks and containers.

“There is a process to getting this city to become the cleanest city in America — which we’re going to do,” he said.

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