Preventing Trash-pocalypse

The accumulation of street trash throughout Lower Manhattan

The accumulation of street trash throughout Lower Manhattan

With more than 60,000 residents crammed into one square mile, Lower Manhattan has an endless supply of one commodity: garbage, which accumulates by the hundreds of tons every 24 hours.
Add to this mix thousands of new apartments planned for the neighborhood in coming years (many of them in “super-tall” highrises), narrow streets laid out in the 1600s, and ever-more constricted gridlock that limits the ability of trucks to collect trash. The result could be a community that is subsumed in its own debris.

The Downtown Alliance has completed a major study, the “Lower Manhattan Residential Sanitation Resource Guide,” analyzing this problem, and proposing solutions. “This is one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the City,” says Alliance president Jessica Lappin. “But more residents mean more garbage.” She adds that the Alliance’s study aims to, “change behavior, identify best practices and reduce waste. We also want to work with the City to develop a plan that will encourage new large-scale residential developments to build waste infrastructure into their properties.”

Among the report’s key findings is that three is considerable room for improvement among local residential buildings: Fewer than 20 percent of Downtown properties have enrolled in at least one or more of the voluntary waste-diversion services (for specialized categories of trash such as compostable organics, clothing, and electronic waste) provided free of charge by City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY).

Even where participation is mandatory, as is the case with recycling, most residential buildings take a low-tech approach, simply piling up this category of waste on sidewalks on the mandated days of the week.

For example, the Alliance report notes that in an apartment building with 500 dwellings, a typical yield of recyclables (52 bags and hand-tied bundles containing items such as glass, plastics, and cans) takes up 130 square feet of sidewalk space. But the same amount of material can be compressed into just 16 square feet using inexpensive mechanical baling equipment.

Similar equipment can also be used to crush and store the non-recyclable waste that comprises the vast majority of a building’s trash output, and such facilities can be shared between multiple buildings.

This is the case in Battery Park City, where four shared compactors handle the combined garbage produced by more than two dozen residential buildings. In a program managed by the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA), staff from each of these buildings bring trash to one of the compactors, where is it crushed and stored temporarily, to await pickup by DSNY trucks later that day. In the aggregate, this amounts to several hundred tons of trash each month that is never deposited on local streets. Another effect is that fewer garbage trucks are needed to service the community, and those that are deployed to Battery Park City spend less time on its streets.

Jessica Lappin

No similar program exists in the other communities of Lower Manhattan, such as the Financial District. The Alliance report notes that, “while this is an attractive solution that could dramatically reduce the number of trucks on our streets, it is challenging to implement. Individual properties would have to work together to identify a suitable location and determine how to equitably share the costs (both upfront and ongoing) of this solution. Additionally, a building would need sufficient loading dock space to house the compactor and allow for a DSNY collection vehicle to enter and pick up the compacted waste.”

The Alliance also endorses several other policy recommendations, including more frequent DSNY collection (within shorter “windows”), creating real-time collection alerts to enable building managers to “meet the truck,” and implementing incentives for new residential developments to incorporate into their plans waste infrastructure.

The Alliance has hands-on experience in keeping the community clean: for nearly 25 years, the group has been picking up litter, removing graffiti and shoveling snow in public areas across Lower Manhattan. Every 12 months, the Alliance bags nearly 1,500 tons of public trash and collects 250 tons of public recyclables.

Matthew Fenton

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