A World Without Trash Cans?

Early reports suggest at least one of the bombs used in yesterday's Boston Marathon attack was hidden in a garbage can. There's a case to be made for removing them all.

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Reuters

In May 2001, the State Department issued a memo on homemade bombs and IEDs. "IEDs can be contained in almost anything," the pamphlet warns, including "trash cans, dumpsters, mailboxes, bushes, storage areas, and parked vehicles." The warning became painfully relevant once again on Monday — early reports suggest that at least one of the explosive devices used in the attack at the Boston Marathon was hidden in a garbage can.

In the modern terror era, major cities are all too aware of the ways attackers can use a piece of existing infrastructure to hide a weapon. Given this reality, what does a safe city look like now?

Some cities have already started to grapple with this question head-on. London, for example, began removing rubbish bins from its public spaces years ago. As our own Sarah Goodyear reported:

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.

This was not, obviously, a fool-proof solution. Residents complained that they had nowhere to put trash; critics said it led to an uptick in littering.

Around the 2012 Olympics, London began testing a new solution:  "bomb-proof bins." The can was designed in 2007 by two entrepreneurs, and about 100 have been installed so far, with plans to bring similar designs to Singapore, Tokyo, and New York.

According to Gizmodo, the bin's design reduces "the shockwave of an explosion." And because the bin is made of steel, it prevents heat and shrapnel from generating out in the event of an explosion. The technology "reduces the peak pressure of an explosion and extinguishes the fireball."

Plus there's a side benefit: large screens on each side of the bin can be converted into emergency alert announcements in case of an attack.

A handful of cities have also begun to strategically remove trash cans. Tokyo removed garbage cans from its subway and central business district in 1995, after the gruesome Aum Shinrikyo-planned sarin gas attack killed 13 and injured thousands.

The PATH system in New York removed trash cans after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks at the World Trade Center. New York City began removing trash cans from the city's metro stations just this August, though that plan is primarily aimed at reducing the amount trash MTA officials have to process (counter-intuitively, they argue a lack of trash cans may keep stations cleaner).

Domestically, few cities have taken the trash can bans beyond public transit. New York City has few garbage bins near the World Trade Center memorial. In 2009, Washington, D.C., officials removed trash cans and mailboxes from the National Mall and much of the inaugural parade route for security reasons. And in the hours after yesterday's bombings, Boston police ordered the removal of trash cans from around the area of the bomb blasts, according to CBS.

As cities around the world grapple with how to respond to the Boston attack, could streets without trash cans become the norm?

Top image: Blood can be seen on the sidewalk as men in bomb-disposal suits investigate the site of an explosion which went off on Boylston Street during the 117th Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.