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New York City: What If We Put Trash Inside Cans?

Photo: Epics/Getty Images

As Curbed regulars all learned when we declared this past August Hot Garbage Month, piled-up black bags on the sidewalk are not a civilized way to deal with our trash. They’re rat smorgasbords; they stink; they are unpleasant to navigate; they are miserable accompaniments to eating outdoors. The Department of Sanitation knows this perfectly well, and though its ability to change a giant citywide system is limited, today its officials announced a few small-scale plans to limit the amount of time bags spend festering on the curb. Right now, residential trash has to go out after 4 p.m. for the following day’s pickup; henceforth it’ll be 8 p.m., deferring rodent dinnertimes by a bit.

But there’s an exception buried in all of that: If you put your residential trash in a can, rather than a black bag, you can set it out earlier in the day. Commercial entities — that is, restaurants, offices, and stores, which use private trash carters instead of city pickup — can put their trash out in bins an hour before closing time, whenever that may be. This exemption, explains Joshua Goodman, a spokesman from the Department of Sanitation, “is meant to incentivize using a container. This is a way to help people who say, ‘Well, I go to bed at 7:45’ — well, you can put it out earlier, but you’ve gotta get a can.” The whole business harks back to the pre-1968 era of New York garbage, when most of our trash was set at the curb in Oscar-the-Grouch-style steel trash cans with lids; they made a racket and were heavy lifting for the sanitation guys, but they were a lot better as ratproofing barriers than a polypropylene bag could ever be. This new move is, perhaps, a flicker of movement toward containerization, a much-discussed change that would put bags off the sidewalks and rats out of luck, and also is staggeringly difficult to carry off at a citywide scale, at least in New York, which in many areas has no alleys.

So, then, some questions. Is the Department of Sanitation going to distribute containers upon request? “Nope, gotta get your own,” says Goodman. Is there a maximum weight for a bin of trash? Not exactly, but there’s a volume limit that keeps the weight manageable: “Fifty-five gallons — that’s been the law for a long time.” Is this a sneaky way of trying out the kind of automated hoist-and-dump system that other cities use? “We’re separately studying that,” he says, “but even if we did move to that, it’s the sort of thing that would be rolled out over years.” One suspects that shifting the deadline by a few hours will have a pretty limited effect. But it’s something — or, as Goodman suggests, two somethings. “One is fewer huddles of black bags to make your way around. And one is anti-rat.”

New York City: What If We Put Trash Inside Cans?