“Did you understand that?”
It was a steamy July morning on Brooklyn Heights’ Montague Street, and a man in a rat mask was being filmed for the New York Department of Sanitation’s TikTok account. The plot involved Buddy the Rat and an unnamed raccoon character trying to break into a ten-foot-tall garbage shed — the city’s latest weapon in its long, losing war on garbage.
The people filming nodded. They got the shot.
For the city, social media campaigns and rat-proof containers are just the latest attempts to solve a century-old problem in New York City: What do you do with millions of people’s waste every day?
The city’s Clean Curbs pilot program includes a deceptively simple proposal for dealing with the garbage bags New Yorkers often see waiting to be picked up on sidewalks and corners: Toss them in a trash can.
Sanitary officials set up some sealed, rat-proof sheds for corporate garbage bags in late June and mid-July. There are two sheds near Times Square and two on Montague Street.
The containers are from Brooklyn-based company Citibin, and more are in the works — a pilot apartment block program will roll out in the fall, starting in Hell’s Kitchen.
“It’s not a panacea,” said Joshua Goodman, the assistant public affairs commissioner at the Department of Sanitation. Still, containerization — storing garbage bags in containers rather than leaving them on the curb to pick them up — can make streets and sidewalks cleaner. That is why the city is currently conducting a test in all five city districts.
“We are moving forward with a $1.3 million plan to test buckets of various types and configurations,” said Mr. Goodman. “And that means the bin itself as well as what’s in it and how it’s maintained.”
Experimenting with ways to deal with waste is not new. An article published in DailyExpertNews in August 1873 noted which specific blocks were “unclean with street filth, garbage, and garbage.”
Nearly a century later, in 1967, a Times headline stated that the “City is losing battle against garbage-strewn and littered streets.”
In its never-ending fight against garbage, the city has faced protests and strikes, as well as job losses at the Sanitation Department, while at the same time trying to upgrade its weapons in the fight: In 1961, it gave scooters to sanitation workers so they would “litterbugs”. ‘, as a promising 20-year-old writer named Gay Talese reported at the time. In 1969, the city started putting garbage in plastic bags; a few years later it introduced new, supposedly better trash cans.
Still, the problems persisted. Even New York’s recycling program has proved difficult to manage at times.
For Clean Curbs, the city has issued specifications for the type of container to be used and so far Citibin’s sheds are being tested. The containers must, among other things, be non-combustible and completely closed and must not obstruct fire hydrants or pedestrian crossings. Citibins come in multiple sizes, with different numbers of lockable doors.
Recently, The New York Post reported that one of the bins in Times Square was leaking garbage juice onto the street. “Tweaks continue during the pilot. That’s what a pilot is about,” said Liz Picarazzi, the founder and chief executive of Citibin. Everything from the screws and latches to the adjustable feet is tested and refined, and the design is modular. The trash can on West 41st Street has replaced all of its doors.
There are just so many challenges. “This comes in a handful of ways where New York isn’t harder than other cities, but just different,” said Mr. Goodman. “And why you can’t necessarily just copy and paste what exists elsewhere.”
The Sanitation Department has approximately 10,000 employees, making it the largest municipal waste collection service in the country. Each worker lifts approximately 10 tons of waste or recycling per day. Working for the department is one of the most dangerous jobs in the city. Lifting and throwing garbage bags takes a physical toll, and about once a month, Mr. Goodman said, a plumbing worker is threatened or assaulted. Then there’s the honking of impatient drivers stuck behind garbage trucks.
A pilot program like Clean Curbs has many variables. Mr. Goodman formulated some of the many questions associated with placing waste in a container for collection: How big should the container be? Can it withstand the weather all year round? Who is responsible for excavating after a snow storm? Does the container work with the city’s waste collection procedures or do changes need to be made? Should the barn doors open to the street or open up? Are combination locks the right choice? What about locks with keys?
After answering those questions, you need to think about what people actually throw away.
“I’d like to do a waste audit to see exactly what’s in those bins,” said Anna Sacks, an environmentalist and waste expert who posts on TikTok as The Trashwalker.
Ms Sacks said she would like to see sidewalks cleared of trash bags, but she was concerned about the container proposal. She expects that the bins in the pilot will mainly contain ‘disposable coffee cups for single use’. Which points to the need for reuse. You should have these reusable cup systems.”
Plus, Ms. Sacks wondered what the New Yorkers are that survive from what’s left on the doorstep. “We need to think about the impact on people who earn their income from exchanging the cans,” she said.
Ms. Sacks, whose videos often detail the food, clothing and electronics available to shops and schools, was also concerned about the second-hand economy. As containerization spreads all over New York City, she said, “Usable items on the sidewalk will no longer be accessible.”
Lane Shepherd, a baker at L’Appartement 4F on Montague Street, said when the new bins for the bakery appeared he found them “definitely more appealing to look at” than a pile of plastic garbage bags, but added: “I just didn’t understand how it was going to work on a large scale.”
Many commercial buildings, especially high-rise buildings, produce far more waste than can fit in a regular four-door Citibin. Mr Goodman said the city would encourage commercial properties to explore containerization, or to store waste in a basement or loading bay before collection, rather than on the sidewalk.
The Department of Sanitation also plans to require homes and businesses to put their bags outside later in the day — 8 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. — to minimize the number of hours rats can access them.
As the pilot progresses, containers can appear on more and more blocks in the city. Neighborhoods with Business Improvement Districts would see bags from street trash baskets in a Citibin before collection, and on certain residential streets, landlords and supervisors can opt for a mid-block bin.
Back on Montague Street on a recent morning, the Citibin was ready to be serviced.
It had four waist-high doors and two planters, each with brightly blooming flowers.
A sanitary truck rolled up and two workers descended. They unlocked the four padlocks, opened all the doors, and quickly took out the bags of trash and tossed them into the back of a white collection truck.
One bag had a small tear and a little mysterious liquid dripped onto the sidewalk. The workers returned to the barn and locked the doors one by one.
For a few seconds, a worker fiddled with the padlock, his thick gloves making it difficult to get a good grip. Soon, however, both men were back in the truck and heading for the street, with only a dripping slice of watermelon rind behind.
Then, Djana Hughes, who is employed by the Montague Street Business Improvement District, approached the Citibin with a broom and a dustpan to clean up. As she ran after the shed, she made an alarming sound, “Oh!”
Using the broom and can as a pair of pliers, she removed a dead rat, whose plump body was a foot long, from under the shed and deposited it in the plastic wheeled trash can she’d been pushing. The rat did not enter the Citibin, but had died trying.