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By Emma Fitzsimmons
New York City, where sidewalks have long been overrun by foul-smelling heaps of garbage bags that force passers-by to yield to oncoming rat traffic, is about to try a not-so-novel idea to solve the problem.
The concept, known as trash containerization, seems simple enough: Get trash off the streets and into containers. The strategy has been used successfully in cities across Europe and Asia, like Barcelona and Singapore.
But in New York, nothing is that simple.
In a highly anticipated new report being released on Wednesday, city sanitation officials estimate that it would be possible to move trash to containers on 89 percent of the city’s residential streets. To do so, however, will require removing 150,000 parking spots, and up to 25 percent of parking spots on some blocks.
The report does not address the cost of implementing trash containerization citywide, but it could easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade. City officials must buy new specialized trash trucks and stationary containers, while also increasing the frequency of trash collection in large swaths of the city.
The new approach could revolutionize trash collection in New York. Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat in his second year in office, has said attacking trash is one of his priorities, framing it as part of broader efforts to improve quality of life in the city after the disruption of the pandemic. He has hired a new rat czar with a “killer instinct” for slaying rats.
But embracing trash containers will require trade-offs, including sacrificing more parking spots than were taken for outdoor dining or the city’s popular bike-share program — both of which stirred pockets of outrage.
The city’s sanitation commissioner, Jessica Tisch, said in a statement that sanitation officials were working hard to remove trash more quickly, including setting new hours for placing trash on the curb, and that trash containerization was the critical next step.
“Mayor Adams wants a permanent solution, something like what other global cities have that takes our sidewalks back from the black bags — and from the rats,” she said. “The detailed street-level analysis in this report shows, for the first time, that containerization — in the form of individual bins and shared containers — actually is viable across the vast majority of the five boroughs.”
The new trash program would look different across the city depending on the block. For a single-family home in eastern Queens, residents could be required to use individual bins for trash, recycling and compost. On a block lined with six-story apartment buildings in northern Manhattan, the street could get a dozen large aboveground containers — artist renderings suggest a cross between a dumpster and a giant laundry bin — placed in parking spaces.
By this fall, the city will start a major new pilot program in West Harlem, in Community Board 9, that will install large trash containers in parking spots on up to 10 residential blocks and at more than a dozen schools. On residential blocks, trash collection will double from three times a week to six.
At a time when Mr. Adams is cutting spending across city agencies, he included more than $5.6 million for the pilot program in his latest executive budget proposal — a sign of his commitment to the idea, city officials said.
Shaun Abreu, a City Council member who represents West Harlem, said in a statement that he was excited for the neighborhood to be a part of the pilot program and that it would “make a real difference and teach the city a lot about the path forward.”