Our Garbage, Ourselves

Late on a hot and humid night this summer, I found myself walking east on 12th Street toward Fifth Avenue, which, despite its ranking as one of the most expensive stretches of residential real estate on earth, still felt redolent with neglect. Garbage, rats ambling around with their characteristic sense of ownership, the stench of New York in a heat wave — all there to remind you how much people will sacrifice to live in what was once the world’s singular cultural and financial nexus. No one ever moved to New York because it was tidy but for a while now it has seemed as if the city has become untenably filthier.

One way to quantify this is to look at the incidence of track fires in the subway system, nearly all of which are caused by debris tossed from train platforms. In 2021, despite reduced ridership, there were 1,006 fires according to the M.T.A., a 12 percent uptick from the previous year and a 40 percent increase from 2019. The pandemic era may have brought increased caution in some areas, but it also encouraged disinhibition in many others. Eight months ago, a Queens-bound E train was emptied at a stop in Midtown when someone threw a microwave onto the tracks.

There are also simply more of us. The city’s population grew by roughly half a million people over the past decade as the delivery economy, with all of its accompanying packaging, swelled in tandem.

Today the city generates more garbage than it did five years ago, by an additional 375 tons a day and diverts less of its total output toward recycling, despite an initiative developed during the de Blasio administration to entirely eliminate landfill waste by 2030. To the dismay of environmental advocates, money for a pilot program for curbside pickup of organic materials, curtailed during the early part of the pandemic, was not fully restored in the city’s 2023 budget.

It seemed to be less of a problem, however, to come up with the nearly $4 million to hire the notorious consulting firm McKinsey & Company, friend to Russian oligarchs and Sacklers, to study and design a program around waste containerization, which the city did very recently to the ridicule of the internet.

Transportation in New York City

  • M.T.A. Security: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to install security cameras in every subway car to reassure riders in the wake of several high-profile shootings.
  • Congestion Pricing: It could soon cost $23 to drive through Manhattan as the city moves toward introducing a tolling program to reduce traffic. But the plan could also lead to dirtier air in the Bronx.
  • Subway: Few subway stations in the city have air-conditioned platforms. On the bright side, the system’s tunnels should get cellphone service in the coming years.
  • Penn Station: New York State officials have approved a sweeping redevelopment of Midtown Manhattan that would transform Pennsylvania Station. This is what it could mean for New Yorkers.

Last spring, Mayor Eric Adams appointed Jessica Tisch, a Harvard M.B.A. and granddaughter of the billionaire investor Laurence Tisch, as his sanitation commissioner. After speaking with the mayor of Barcelona, where it is common to find large lidded bins of varying colors on the street, for different disposables (green for glass, blue for paper and cardboard, brown for food waste), she came to believe that New York needed an expert consultancy to implement the broad use of a container system.

Toward this end, over the next 20 weeks, McKinsey will look at ways to overhaul the streetscape to deal with the mounds of black plastic bags that pile up outside townhouses and apartment buildings in advance of trash retrieval and the litter baskets that end up looking like precariously constructed Jenga towers, many still anachronistically made of metal mesh, all of which provide unfailing allure to our rodent brethren.

The questions that will consume researchers — whom I look forward to seeing, standing over trash cans, wondering what old shoes are doing in them — involve determining what sort of containers will work on streets of varying widths, what those bins should look like and how they should be fabricated and maintained under varying weather conditions. European cities that use these systems tend to offer trash collection every day, a spokesman for the city’s sanitation department said, but in New York the maximum that any neighborhood receives is three times a week. To prevent bins from overflowing, which is a problem in Barcelona, that pattern might have to change, which could mean that the Sanitation Department would need to expand.

Perhaps anticipating the backlash to the city’s use of an expensive and ethically dubious consulting firm to think about the aesthetics of garbage, a spokesman for the city’s sanitation department, wrote to me this week explaining that, “containerization is a BIG UNDERTAKING,” that “CANNOT” be done “haphazardly.” In addition to impinging on quality of life, mounds of visible trash counter the New York-is-back-baby message that the Adams administration is keen on delivering.

The more challenging questions are not mechanical but psychological, revolving around the ways in which we might alter human consumption in the face of an escalating climate crisis. Recycling at the level of personal habit takes at least some work. In the basement of the building where I live, there are separate containers for regular garbage, for redeemable bottles, for glass and metal and paper. But often people will thoughtlessly merge all of their recyclables into a single bin, having no patience for sorting.

Similarly, you may have every intention of getting your 10-year-old’s toddler clothes and long-forgotten Duplo blocks to a church or other charity but you are never quite sure how you are going to make the time to do that and then one Sunday when you can’t take the clutter in your 850-square-foot apartment one minute longer, you find yourself guiltily throwing everything into a Hefty bag bound for a landfill. One way to combat this tendency — if we aren’t willing to cut back on endless Amazon purchases — is to make it easier for people to unload the full range of possessions that have lost their utility.

The fact that litter is rampant would suggest that we ought to be working hard to get people to produce less of it. It is not intuitive that sealed containers would accomplish that, inspiring virtue simply by the fact of presence. People litter when they feel entitled or alternately when they are so disenfranchised that they have little compulsion to take care of a place that would seem to have such meager investment in them. By this vantage, our problems with muck and grime all too neatly reflect our composition as a city divided among the extremely affluent and the constantly struggling. Is that a problem McKinsey can solve?

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