Throwing It All Away: NYC Subway Trashes More Trash Cans

Transit officials say a pilot program has helped reduce garbage inside stations, but results elsewhere have been mixed.

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Flickr/Paul Lowry

New York City’s pilot program to reduce litter in subway stations by cutting the number of trash receptacles has been so successful, transit officials claim, that it is going to be expanded to eight more stations in coming weeks.

The idea, fairly common in state parks and beaches, is this: if you don’t give people a place to put their garbage, they will take it with them wherever they are going. On the subway, the theory goes, this will cut down on the detritus that leads to track fires, rat infestations, and general grossness.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials say that at the two stations that have been part of the year-old program, the amount of debris being hauled out has been reduced by 50 and 67 percent.

A simpler solution proposed by lawmakers (and on this site last year) – making eating on the New York subway system illegal, as it is in Washington, D.C. – fizzled out due to lack of support. New Yorkers on transit expect to be able to do everything while on the go. They want to listen to their own music. They want to sleep. They want to put on makeup. And they want to eat and drink. That last part can lead to some pretty unsanitary conditions.

So will the no-trash-can policy really function to reduce trash, the same way urban planners say eliminating highways can reduce traffic?

According to The New York Times, subway riders and vendors in the stations that have been part of the year-old experiment report mixed results so far:

Some riders…have expressed reservations about the plan. Less trash, they argue, does not imply a more hygienic subway experience.

“I don’t know what to do with this,” Christopher DiScipio, 22, said on Thursday clutching a nearly-finished apple at the Eighth Street station.

Nearby, in a narrow alcove between a pay phone kiosk and a vertical beam, riders appeared to have fashioned a rogue receptacle. Detritus piled about three feet high — a mélange of crushed energy drink cans; bottles of water and, in at least one case, vodka; mounds of wrappers and paper cups; and what appeared to have once been a white T-shirt.

Dilu Chowdhury, 51, who operates a newsstand inside the station, said the surrounding area had become far dirtier in recent months. Customers often ask to use his trash bin. “I take it,” he said of customers’ waste, “but it is not enough.”

There may be less trash to haul, but more of it may be free-floating until it does get taken away.

New York officials sometimes cite the example of London when they talk about the merits of removing trash receptacles from the subway system. But the rationale behind the lack of garbage cans in that city (as in Tokyo) is different. In London, bins were yanked from stations and many other locations in the central city years ago because the Irish Republican Army used them as bomb drop locations. Metal cans were especially attractive to terrorists because they could create deadly shrapnel when the bombs went off. Now the few cans they do have in the Tube are plastic bags suspended from hoops, carefully monitored by security.

The demand for garbage cans never went away, despite London’s long history of doing without. When it came time to ramp up for the Olympics, London Mayor Boris Johnson announced that his administration would boost the number of trash bins in the Tube by 25 percent, according to Waste Management World:

The extra bins are the next phase of the Mayor's plans to tackle litter and improve quality of life in the capital. He made the announcement at a City Hall litter event which bought together a range of organisations involved in litter prevention and in cleaning up in the city.

Johnson said: "The Tube is often one of the first sights that visitors experience when they visit our city whilst Londoners also want to travel in a clean, pleasant environment. London Underground staff work hard to keep the network spick and span, but these extra bins are a welcome addition to help passengers deposit their waste in an environmentally friendly way."

London is also experimenting with some super-fancy bomb-proof recycling receptacles, featuring LCD screens with stock market news and transportation updates. Created by a private company called Renew, they cost about $50,000 apiece -- an expense that is borne by Renew, which sells ad space on the bins.

No such high-tech solutions are immediately in the offing for the area adjacent to the new World Trade Center, where worries about terrorism have led to a ban on garbage cans. According to the New York Post, nearby residents say the strategy is sweeping the problem onto their doorsteps:

John Gomes, who lives on Greenwich Street, said he watches in horror as visitors chuck wrappers and bottles into the street or on top of black garbage bags put out for the following morning.

“There’s nowhere else to put it. Where does trash go?” he wondered, adding that he walks several blocks just to find a can. “It’s trash on top of trash.”…

“There’s so much security, cameras with facial recognition, there’s police standing everywhere I go — yet we can’t find a way to put trash cans on the corner,” Gomes said. “I refuse to believe it.”

In Seattle, disposing of trash is getting more problematic not on the street, but at home. The city has recently started an experiment in four neighborhoods, switching over to a biweekly, rather than weekly, garbage pickup system. The hope is that it will reduce the amount of waste that residents create while increasing participation in recycling and cutting costs. If it's deemed successful, it could expand citywide by 2015.

So far, the program has elicited some predictable grumbling. People in this country generate a lot of trash, and it’s uncomfortable to sit around with it for long periods of time. When it comes to garbage, people would like to think that tossing things in a can means that they disappear entirely. But all of the latest experiments with refuse disposal serve as a reminder that even when you throw something away, “away” is never very far from where you stand.

Top image: Flickr user Paul Lowry via creative commons.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.