‘Major cities all throughout the world have a modernized and efficient approach to trash collection, and New York City is still lagging. We should make the most out of our public spaces and prioritize public health.’

Adi Talwar

New York City is the greatest city in the world — for trash. Every evening, 12,000 tons of garbage and recyclables are thrown away by New Yorkers. And every evening mountains of garbage bags pile up on the city’s sidewalks. Since there is no limit to the number of bags New Yorkers can put on the curb, garbage bags take over most of the pedestrian walking space. How does one stand six feet away, enjoy outdoor dining, and support mobile food vendors, when there’s piles of garbage bags in the way?

New York City’s waste collection system is notably flawed. Every major city in the U.S. has managed to take trash off the sidewalk, yet New York City continues to fall short. In the 19th century, to prioritize real estate, planners did not build back alleyways for trash collection. Because of this one planning afterthought, the city has spent decades normalizing dumping black garbage bags on top of each other in a public space. 

Piles of garbage bags are not only aesthetically displeasing, it’s also unhygienic. Garbage bags can easily be torn open and be turned into an overnight buffet for rats and other pests. Sidewalk trash is a major contributor to the city’s growing rat population. While the city has taken steps to alleviate its rat problem, it has done little to address the root cause itself, and that’s how it collects its waste.

New York City has an ambitious goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030. However, in order to achieve this, the city must make dramatic changes to how it manages its waste. Waste collection has been traditionally left out of urban street design. Yet how garbage bags are thrown out and picked up from sidewalks have a lasting effect on the eminence of urban life. As the city’s density continues to increase, the question of waste collection becomes more vital.

Upsettingly, City Hall cut the Department of Sanitation’s budget by $106 million last summer, which reduced trash pickups by 60 percent, and the city’s trash situation has only gotten worse. With the mayoral race and City Council races coming up, 2021 is a prime moment for fundamental municipal change for the city. Trash is an overlapping issue that connects to climate change, public health, transit, and more. Current candidates need to make clear how they plan to address and reform the city’s waste management plan.

In March 2020, mayoral candidate and former Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia helped launch the Clean Curbs program. This is a pilot program for commercial waste collection where entities like Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) can apply for the opportunity to have sealed, on-street containers for their trash and recycling storage. While a good step forward, this program relies on private interests to maintain the trash system in a public space, and puts an essential service like waste collection onto local groups, when this should be a city responsibility. It’s also important to note that not every neighborhood has a BID. This is a very micro solution to a macro problem.

The current waste management approaches in the city are heavily segregated by neighborhoods. There should be no reason why we have Roosevelt Island with an efficient pneumatic tube waste collection system and Battery Park City’s community compacting program, while in the majority of neighborhoods throughout the city, piling garbage bags on sidewalk curbs is the norm. New York City needs to standardize its waste collection system to maximize efficiency. One unified system can help with organization, centralizing capacity, and managing resources. It also ensures that neighborhoods that lack resources aren’t isolated.

Getting to zero waste also requires change in policy. New York City is very wasteful and the lack of strict regulations on trash collection only curtails how New Yorkers should think or feel about waste itself. In order to get to zero waste, the city will need to regulate waste disposal. The city should implement a “pay as you throw” trash program, to incentivize residents to change their waste disposal behaviors. Many major cities throughout the country are practicing the “smart cities” movement to become more efficient in waste management by implementing pricing policy to control waste collection. New York is one of the few cities that still funds its waste collection system through general revenue.

In the post-COVID-19 world, we should not aim to return to the status quo. We should aim to return to better. Major cities all throughout the world have a modernized and efficient approach to trash collection, and New York City is still lagging. We should make the most out of our public spaces and prioritize public health. Getting its trash off the sidewalk is a good place to start.

Palak Kaushal is a recent graduate of the NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.