I have an image of a New York City trash can tattooed on my leg. Not the high-end silver models that occasionally appear in business districts but the green wire-mesh bins that have dotted the cityscape for almost 100 years. Usually overflowing, sometimes on fire, the cans are instantly recognizable symbols of the city. Ollieing over one is also a milestone in the life of every New York skateboarder — one reason why I got it indelibly stamped on my body.
“A lot of skaters always talk about, you can kickflip up a curb, right? Can you kickflip over a can?” said Steve Rodriguez, owner of 5Boro skateboards, one of the oldest skate brands in the city. It would be hard to find a skate video shot in New York over the last 35 years that doesn’t feature them in one way or another. The legendary skater Tyshawn Jones, who this month was crowned “Skater of the Year” for the second time by Thrasher magazine, is known for blasting over the cans with such force that they appear like tiny Lego versions of themselves.
But what makes for a great skateboarding obstacle has long been criticized as a noisy, ugly inconvenience. The mesh can offers absolutely no defense against rats. It weighs 30 pounds empty, is achingly heavy once filled, and has sharp bottom edges that bang up the shins of sanitation workers. For decades, the city has promised to replace them with an upgraded model. Next year, this may finally begin to happen. Where the mesh containers once stood will be new cans with a sleek, modular design created by Brooklyn-based design studio Group Project. Winner of the BetterBin competition held by the Department of Sanitation in 2019 to “reimagine” the mesh basket, the can appears to improve on the old model in many ways.
To design it, project lead Colin Kelly and his team spent time talking to street collectors in sanitation garages and on the street, testing prototypes with them. “Ergonomics was a big one — how to reduce weight and add more comfortable grip areas for them to pick it up and service,” Kelly said. The result is a can designed to relieve sanitation workers from having to heave the whole thing up since they’ll be able to open the metal shell and grab the lightweight, removable plastic liners concealed inside that weigh just a little more than ten pounds (about 20 pounds less than the mesh bin). That will also be made easier by the existence of eight ergonomically designed grips on the bin compared to the wire baskets’ two. Color-coded, interchangeable lids (black for trash, blue for recycling) also make it easy to identify what goes inside. The new cans are also punctured in a pattern of narrow slits around the middle and toward the top, which provide airflow, give them a lower center of gravity to prevent them from tipping over, and allow collectors to see if they’ve been emptied. As for rats? Kelly says the slits are large enough to allow liquid to drain but too small for rats to squeeze through.
Nicole Doz-Pillarella, who was a street collector for four years and now works in the DSNY’s Bureau of Public Affairs, admits that there is a bit of nostalgia for the mesh cans among sanitation workers. But there are some things about the new bins that she’s looking forward to. Aside from the reduced weight, she likes their aesthetic. “It’s a little more modern, a little more sleek looking,” she said. “It’s something I’m looking forward to seeing on the streets.”
This is not the first time New York has tried to rid itself of its wire cans. In 1972, the city began producing hexagonal, 470-pound concrete monstrosities, hoping to sell ad real estate on the sides to generate revenue for the city. Just four years later, the plan was abandoned and the wire baskets were back. Unsurprisingly, sanitation workers welcomed the return of the mesh cans. Today, a handful of the concrete bins remain. The idea was to use them as sort of brutalist flower pots, but over 40 years later, they are often filled with trash.
The city tried again in 1987, this time with a design created by two Sanitation Department employees. The new bins were made of blue polyethylene and rounded at the bottom and sat inside a metal frame affixed to the sidewalk. Unfortunately, the polyethylene had a tendency to catch on fire when cigarette butts were thrown into the bins.
For most skateboarders, the new cans will definitely pose a challenge. For one, they’re about 11 inches higher — too much for most to ollie over, except perhaps Tyshawn Jones. Skaters could always tip them over or use a ramp to make the jump, but the thrill won’t be the same.
It’s possible (but unlikely) that the city will reverse course yet again after the rollout of the latest model and run back into the arms of the cold metal mesh that has gotten it through so many decades. And while the cans will be missed by many, skaters especially, Rodriguez isn’t too worried. “It’ll suck that they’ll be gone, but if you’re of a new generation that didn’t know it, then something else will be that milestone,” he said. “Maybe it’ll be the new cans.”