(photos: Department of Sanitation)
In the public conversation surrounding quality of life in New York City, litter baskets -- the mostly green, metal-wire trash cans standing guard on street corners throughout the five boroughs -- have taken on a unique focus. They seem to exist at the nexus between public and private life, providing relief for the refuse-laden pedestrian, and serving as a symbol of the urban order embodied in mundane municipal service delivery.
Where baskets are placed, how often they are serviced, and how the city enforces the laws around their use all impact the cleanliness of streets and the perception that city government can, or can’t, handle the demands of the people it serves. In today's world, when litter baskets overflow and the dirty laundry is aired on social media, a sense of disorder and uncleanliness can spread, a feeling that local government is not effectively serving the density of residents, commuters, and tourists that fuel the city.
Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia famously said that trash collection is not a partisan issue; it’s a measure of basic government service that simply must be done, a reason to have city government and pay taxes. Like plowing snow, New Yorkers expect trash collection to be done effectively and failures have become the subject of renewed focus by the de Blasio administration and its critics.
In New York City, there are roughly 8.4 million residents, tens of thousands of street corners, and approximately 23,000 public litter baskets, according to DSNY. In 2018, 65 million tourists also visited the city.
“We take quality of life very seriously, particularly around cleaning issues, and we consistently put more resources into additional services, whether that is for highway sweeping or for additional litter basket collection,” the city’s Sanitation Commissioner, Katheryn Garcia, told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview.
“But it is always a partnership that we need to have with the public. We need to make sure people are following the rules. Otherwise, it becomes an insurmountable amount of trash and litter,” she added, referring to rules around corner litter baskets and issues with illegal dumping and other violations.
Street corner litter baskets are intended to be used by pedestrians for garbage on their person, like empty food wrappers or a crumpled newspaper, but they are frequently the sites of overflowing refuse that render them useless. In part, officials blame the improper dumping of bulk commercial or household waste, and say the persistent misuse puts a strain on the city’s sanitation infrastructure, leading bins to fill up and spill out into the streets.
In the last two years, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which oversees litter basket services, has undertaken a range of initiatives to help improve litter basket conditions in partnership with the City Council. The measures include increasing funding for basket services, enhanced enforcement tools, and establishing partnerships with other agencies and the private sector.
By at least one measure, these efforts appear to be working.
In 2015, complaints of overflowing litter baskets to the city’s non-emergency helpline, 311, reached their highest point in five years -- DSNY opened 1,563 such cases that year, according to data available on the city’s Open Data Portal.
Since then, litter basket complaints to 311 have declined each year, falling to 946 in 2018. In the first eight months of 2019, only 461 complaints have been made.
In Fiscal Year 2019, which ended June 30 of this year, the city allocated $3.5 million for supplemental basket services, according to DSNY, on top of its roughly $1.7 billion expense budget for the agency, which includes funding for a variety of services from trash to snow removal. The money was for additional pick-ups to try to combat the scourge of full and unusable street corner bins, according to City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.
This year, the City Council secured an additional $5.1 million, bringing the total allocations for supplemental basket services in the new Fiscal 2020 budget that took effect July 1 to $8.6 million, according to DSNY. The department received the new allocations on August 12 and is currently devising a plan for how it will be spent -- whether it will fund more staffing or trucks, or better pick-up route design.
“We are currently evaluating our operation plan on supplemental litter basket service that will be provided by this new funding. We plan to unveil plan details soon,” DSNY spokesperson Dina Montes told Gotham Gazette in an email.
“By early fall,” she clarified in an interview, indicating that this is an estimate.
The extra pick-ups in 2018 and 2019 have been well-received by a number of Council members Gotham Gazette spoke to. “For the most part, I’ve seen an improvement with the extra pick-ups,” said Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents central Staten Island and has been a vocal advocate for better litter services to improve street cleanliness.
“There is nothing worse than seeing a garbage can that is overflowing, that has bags around it. It just brings more litter, so the extra pick-up has been great,” he added in an interview. Since the additional funding allocations in 2018, basket pick-ups increased from two to four times per week in Staten Island Community Board 1, and in Community Boards 2 and 3, weekly pick-ups increased to three, Matteo said.
DSNY says it has adopted similar increases throughout the city, especially in high traffic areas.
According to a May press release from the City Council citing DSNY budget testimony, street cleanliness increased from 95 to 96 percent in Fiscal Year 2019 based on measurements of street trash by field agents of the mayor’s office. Other studies are less favorable, like the Citizens Budget Commission's Resident Feedback Survey, which showed only 47.3 percent of respondents rated their neighborhood cleanliness as either “excellent” or “good.”
“You don’t need a litter basket collection multiple times a day if you’re out on Staten Island. Are you going to need it in the middle of Midtown? Yeah,” Garcia said.
“I’m very glad that the Department of Sanitation was able to receive additional funding from this year’s budget,” said Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents parts of Lower Manhattan, in a statement. “I hope to see more of these services targeted to underserved, high-need neighborhoods like SoHo, Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where illegal dumping and commercial trash -- especially with the unprecedented rise of Amazon deliveries -- continue to be issues that small businesses and residents struggle with."
Despite the positive reception, many feel there is still work to be done.
“I am glad the Department of Sanitation is exploring new tactics to make our streets cleaner – residents have even noticed a difference on 86th Street. Despite these efforts, however, I continue to hear from constituents across my district, particularly on the Upper East Side, regarding issues with trash,” said Council Member Keith Powers, representing a large swath of the east side of Manhattan, in a statement.
The drop in 311 complaints has also accompanied an effort by DSNY and the City Council to crack down on illegal dumping and drop-offs. Illegal dumping is when commercial or household waste is left by a vehicle, and drop-offs refer to bulk debris disposal that exceed the basket’s capacity for personal trash.
In 2018, Matteo was the main sponsor of a number of bills in a package that became law and allowed DSNY enforcement officials to use identifying information found in unlawfully dumped piles, such as an envelope or magazine with a name or address, to pursue offenders. Previously, DSNY agents had to witness an illegal dumping take place in order to issue a violation.
“We could tell that, obviously, a vehicle was used because there was a huge amount of garbage and there was no way somebody could carry it. We are talking about construction debris, sometimes it’s appliances, and then there is also bags of trash,” said Montes of DSNY.
Prior to the new legislation, which went into effect in the fall of 2018, “we couldn’t actually use any material that was found in the trash to actually investigate,” she said.
The city has also begun using surveillance cameras to monitor sites with frequent dumping and clamp down on the illegal activity. Earlier this year, DSNY partnered with Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, the Parks Department, and a local business improvement district (BID) to investigate chronic illegal dumpers. (Business improvement districts are areas where local industry contribute to the management and funding of public space maintenance.)
“Our collective efforts to combat illegal dumping continue to yield positive results in holding bad actors accountable and improving quality of life on Staten Island,” McMahon said in a July press release. According to Montes, DSNY has issued five summonses to illegal dumpers that were caught on camera since 2018.
In 2018, the City Council also increased the penalties for dumping and littering in an effort to discourage the behavior, which are relatively lax compared to nearby jurisdictions, officials say. “You live in Suffolk County, the fines are like 10 times what the fines are in New York City,” Garcia told Gotham Gazette.
Last summer, new legislation imposed higher fines for littering small amounts of trash from vehicles -- going from $100 to $200 -- and for illegal dumping of garbage and debris from $1,500 to $4,000 (a 167 percent increase), according to Montes.
Since the new penalties went into effect last November, DSNY has issued 111 summonses for littering from a motor vehicle.
Despite the increased penalties and enforcement tools, DSNY still faces an uphill battle, especially in transportation hubs, locations with high food tourism and nightlife, and areas surrounding construction sites.
“In terms of general trash and litter problems, the downtown area is always one of the worst and requires the most oversight,” said Scott Sieber, a spokesperson for Queens Council Member Peter Koo, referring to the high-activity area of Downtown Flushing.
Because litter baskets are for pedestrian use in high-traffic, often commercial, corridors, DSNY usually does not place them in areas that are primarily residential, Montes told Gotham Gazette. This has placed a strain on gentrifying neighborhoods that have seen a shift from residential to multi-purpose use.
“In my district in Bushwick, we were having severe litter problems, mostly because nightlife was picking-up in and around the neighborhood, and we haven’t necessarily built out the infrastructure for trash collection that was matching that,” Reynoso said.
One of the obstacles to litter basket collection is knowing where the litter baskets are. Litter baskets can be placed by the city, by BIDs, and by nonprofit and private entities after receiving permission from DSNY. Baskets are frequently moved due to damage or vandalism, nearby construction, or regular illegal use. DSNY uses field staff to track basket placement and gauge their effectiveness. “Our cleaning office will also add baskets to areas that have become more commercial,” said Montes.
DSNY has also identified the design of litter baskets, which haven’t changed since the 1930s, as a contributor to trash spilling into the streets. In August 2018, the de Blasio administration launched a competition to redesign street corner bins, soliciting participants from the private sector, with the goal of creating bins that are more accessible, easy-to-service, and better equipped to handle spillage. The city is testing prototypes from two finalists with plans to announce a winner in the fall.
As city neighborhoods continue to shift, packaging from online commerce proliferates, and concern for the environment becomes more urgent, elected officials are looking for ways to reduce -- not just collect -- the amount of trash the city produces.
“Although we have seen improvements in [litter basket pick-up], my ultimate goal is to continue to work on legislation that will ultimately reduce the city’s waste as a whole,” wrote Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.
“What we’re hoping is to start lowering the amount of trash the city of New York is sending to landfills and we need to start moving away from needing litter baskets at every single corner,” Reynoso told Gotham Gazette. (Reynoso was a vocal proponent of the increased funding for litter baskets this year, and helped put pressure on de Blasio to include it in the enacted budget.)
“While we were putting out the litter baskets because we want to keep the streets clean, we as a city do need to start working on reduction and reuse,” he said. “More litter baskets reinforces the idea that you can continue to have contents on your person and get rid of them, eventually, in a corner.”