trash talk

‘Things That Work Throughout the Country Don’t Work in New York City’

A pair of robotic arms, directed with a joystick operated by a driver, is the future of trash pickup in New York, or at least one version of a future that is being piloted. Photo: nycmayorsoffice/Flickr

On Thursday, Eric Adams stepped off a garbage truck in Harlem for a demonstration of how the city’s newest model of truck will lift its newest bins. To the chorus of “Empire State of Mind,” two robotic arms attached to the right side of the cab reached out, lifted a gray plastic bin, dumped it into the cab, and returned the bin to the ground. “This was our moon landing,” the Department of Sanitation’s official account wrote on X. On the side of the truck, a poster read, “The Future of Trash is Here.”

The new trucks are part of the mayor’s war on rats, which began by pushing rat dinnertime a few hours later. Restaurants were then told to put trash in containers, and by March all other businesses will have to follow them. The trucks are meant to pick up large, gray containers that are tougher for rats to bite through (than those giant pyramids of black bags). For now, the system is being piloted across a stretch of ten blocks in Harlem — a fiscally conservative move, seeing as each of the new trucks cost about half-a-million dollars, and there are about 600 trucks in the fleet.

The union of sanitation workers, Teamsters Local 831, has weighed in on city pilot programs like this one before. Its president, Harry Nespoli, started as a sanitation worker in the 1970s and fought to redesign trucks to remove the steps on the backs because he was sick of seeing his colleagues fall and get injured. He told us why he worries that the new trucks might not work across the city or in every kind of weather, and about the time a rat crawled into the sleeve of his partner’s rain suit.

Any concerns about this truck? 

Safety. I’m concerned about its side-loading mechanism. It’s a big mechanism with two arms, and in New York City, people have a tendency to say, “Lemme come around by the side of the curb to get around,” and as these arms come down — oof. We always had kids always fascinated by sanitation trucks and loved to hang around them. Anytime you’re dealing with the public outside, and you’re lifting garbage, you need eyes on the street. So one worker will be on the street by the bin watching for anything that could possibly go wrong, whether it be with the public or the truck, and there’s a kill switch right by him.

I also don’t think this truck can be used throughout the city of New York. I think some of the streets are too narrow. In Brooklyn Heights, down by the water, those streets down there are old, narrow streets. Really narrow. I don’t see that working down there. Like, when we had snow in the streets we couldn’t get a full-size sanitation truck down there with a plow. We had to have smaller trucks. For some parts of the city, it won’t be feasible. And I’m worried about snow itself: When we plow, we push snow to the right. We’re going to be plowing a lot of snow onto these containers. If we can lift them in the snow, the snow will fall into the hole. Will we be able to put them back?

Where are the pick-up bins going to be? 

There’s going to be probably three to a block, so that means people are going to have to walk to where the containers are and put the bags in the container. And if they have only three containers on the block, and when it’s snowing and windy and cold and everything like that — it may be kind of difficult to get there, though I might be 100 percent wrong.

Can people with disabilities even open these? 

The bins have a very low handle so if you’re in a wheelchair, you can open it up and throw your trash in. And they have a foot lever, too. But to get to the bin, the wheelchair has to be in the street, because the container will be in the street. If you’re in a wheelchair, yes, you can use the handle but you’ll have to get down the curb.

Do you think this whole thing might actually work? 

Call me up in six months after this pilot program starts. Things that work throughout the country don’t work in New York. New York is New York. It’s its own thing.

But I will say, this commissioner has been trying to get rid of these bags, the black bags out in the street, for the longest time. It’s an eyesore. They break and the streets are filthy and the rats get in. These containers will prevent that. They’ll get emptied and filled up by the public, and there will be no eyesore. But you need cooperation from the public. As long as the public wants to cooperate and do the right thing, we’ll have a very clean city. It can definitely help with rats not having bags out there, but my quote on the rats is, “They were here before us.” So I don’t know. Nobody really knows.

I spoke to a rat expert who told me that rats learn garbage-collection pick-up times, and listen for trucks. So maybe the rats will still be getting in these dumpsters and enjoying themselves, and then leave right before a truck comes.

If that rat expert wasn’t a sanitation man he doesn’t know shit, because let me tell you, I lifted pails up all my life. I had rats jumping off my shoulder, coming out of the trucks. Coming to a pail, I’d open up the cover and see them on their back legs jumping out and hitting me on the shoulder. Our rain gear is huge, like a large suit, and my partner got a rat up his sleeve. It got stuck in there! He was running up the block ripping off his rain gear. So unless you were on the truck, you can read anything you want to in a book.

Things that work throughout the country don’t work in NYC