Home View from Underground Understanding and misunderstanding the trash can-free program

Understanding and misunderstanding the trash can-free program

by Benjamin Kabak

Signs posted in the pilot stations urge riders to take their trash with them.

In late August, Transit removed trash cans from eight more stations around the city in an effort to both cut down on garbage collection costs and reduce the number of rodents underground. To many people, the MTA’s logic has been counterintuitive. How does reducing the number of trash cans cut down on garbage? Yet with collection limited to the fixed tracks of the subway system, it’s a proposal that should actually work.

So far, at least, politicians and straphangers are mixed on the pilot, but it seems to me to be a case of misunderstanding the cause of the problem and the MTA’s potential solution. Take a glance through this short Daily News article on some of the pilot stations. The short of it is that Midtown riders are skeptical while Lower Manhattan stations seem much cleaner.

In one survey conducted online by City Council member Jessica Lappin, two-thirds of respondents said litter had increased at 57th St. while Pete Donohue’s own inspection of Rector St. revealed only an errant empty water bottle. The Daily News writer has more:

“As you might expect, taking away the trash cans doesn’t mean people magically stop producing garbage,” said Councilwoman Jessica Lappin (D-Manhattan), whose office conducted the survey. “The MTA should toss out this plan and put the garbage cans back.”

Despite the complaints, the MTA is not planning any immediate change in the program…The MTA said it would keep a close eye on the situation at 57th St. and at the other nine stations now in the pilot program.

At the Rector St. station on the No. 1 line — one of the can-less stations — the platforms Friday afternoon were almost completely void of trash. There was one empty water bottle on the uptown platform and one small plastic bag on the other side. “Every once in a while, there might be some trash near the benches, but nothing significant,” said Leah Bebatchenko, 25, a Manhattan graduate student.

Lappin’s comments seem particularly misguided. Of course people aren’t going to stop producing garbage, but it just isn’t that hard to take it to street level and use Department of Sanitation trash cans. If subway riders are littering on their own, that’s an indictment of their own behavior and not the MTA’s. Furthermore, trash in the cans that then sits on the platform and attracts rodents is the overall problem; litter is a social ill outside the scope of this program.

It takes a bit of creative thinking to see how eliminating trash cans cuts down on trash collection, and in a society which needs its hand held when it comes to refuse disposal, politicians are often slow to grasp the broader implications. For now, though, this pilot program should continue.

You may also like


Bolwerk October 16, 2012 - 1:28 pm

I love authority figures who shirk their responsibility in favor of magical thinking. If Lappin wants to deal with litter, she can propose anti-littering legislation and maybe has a reasonable expectation that it might pass.

R. Graham October 16, 2012 - 2:42 pm

Politicians will never graps the concept of real problem solving. Getting elected is now an employment opportunity and no longer a duty of service.

Jerrold October 16, 2012 - 1:31 pm

Off-topic, but there’s really nowhere else here where I can put this question: Ben, now that they made that decision to indefinitely postpone the opening of the $200 million passageway, what happened with that “headhouse” on Broadway across the street from the Fulton Center? Did they at least open THAT up?

R. Graham October 16, 2012 - 2:40 pm

It is open. It leads directly to the 4 & 5 downtown platform. Looks terrific as well. Looks like the Fulton Street exit will follow in closure soon.

Jerrold October 16, 2012 - 3:57 pm

OK, thanks!
Progress truly proceeds by inches when it comes to the MTA’s capital projects. At least this is one more inch.

R. Graham October 16, 2012 - 2:45 pm

What Lappin can’t see if people can’t take their trash with them then the cans shouldn’t come back because when they overflow due to the large crowd numbers going through the station they will still litter hence the next solution. Banning food and beverages except water.

John-2 October 16, 2012 - 3:58 pm

It seems like stations such as Rector or 57th — with no existing vendors at platform or mezzanine levels — should be the easiest stations to remove the trash cans from. People at those stops either have to bring the potential trash with them into the station or have to be porting it from some other stop or starting point to the destination station. It’s the stops where there are newspapers, gum, candy, water and sodas being sold that figure to be the more problematic ones down the line for the next program.

lawhawk October 16, 2012 - 4:25 pm

Carry in. Carry out. CICO. It works when you’re backpacking or at some state parks (Delaware and Ohio). It’s even recommended at Sandy Hook’s NRA. PATH doesn’t have garbage cans on platforms either. We haven’t missed them either.

It should work when you’re on the subway and the pilot programs are leading the way.

The trick is to convince people that the stations are cleaner when they bring the garbage out with them to surface trash cans. Not only does it save on costs for emptying the cans on a daily basis, but it should allow MTA staff to focus on other more mission critical tasks, including basic maintenance and upkeep.

Anon256 October 18, 2012 - 4:47 am

How about cutting costs by not heating the trains in winter, and telling people to wear parkas or use camping stoves? It works in state parks!

This isn’t a state park, it’s the biggest and richest city in the country. Garbage cans are one of the basic facilities expected within the bounds of civilisation, and there is no excuse for the MTA failing to provide them.

Someone October 16, 2012 - 5:10 pm

I think that the point of the program is to force people to not bring garbage in MTA property.

SEAN October 16, 2012 - 5:39 pm

I think that the point of the program is to force people to not bring garbage in MTA property. Ironic that on Friday I saw someone eating french fries on an M train under Queens Blvd. As a result, I moved to another seat

Bolwerk October 17, 2012 - 8:49 am

It’s to force them to bring it out, not keep them from bringing it in.

Anon256 October 16, 2012 - 5:46 pm

This is absolutely pathetic. Every other business in the city provides a place for customers to throw away garbage. Yes, garbage cans overflow and attract rats if you don’t empty them regularly; that’s why you empty them regularly. Of course this takes some work, but it is simply one of the most basic costs of doing business, and there is no excuse for not doing it.

At this rate, next the MTA will be removing lighting from stations to save on electricity, and advising passengers to bring flashlights.

R. Graham October 17, 2012 - 2:02 am

Now you’re exaggerating while ignoring the main point. Any other regular business doesn’t have to regularly empty trash cans for people totaling in the millions. Not even a football stadium.

If you want them to keep up with the tons of volume are you willing to pay the cost of them keeping pace through an increased fare of let’s say $3.00 per ride?

Anon256 October 17, 2012 - 1:31 pm

If a higher fare is necessary for the MTA to provide a basic level of customer service and respect for its riders, then yes the fare should be higher. (There’s no way trash collection alone would cost an extra $0.50 per swipe, but I’d support a $3 base fare anyway if it would help align the MTA’s incentives more with riders and less with politicians.)

Bolwerk October 17, 2012 - 3:17 pm

By sending the message that the TA is responsible for narcissists’ waste, the overflow might easily cost more than 50¢/swipe. Littering has caused more than one track fire, and at least one fire that caused extensive signal damage IIRC (the 2005 fire near Chambers?).

R. Graham October 17, 2012 - 3:31 pm

At McDonald’s trash cans are apart of basic customer service. That’s not the case in the subway. I don’t know why anyone would think the MTA should be responsible for such because a majority of the items chucked should be recycled anyway and if the MTA really provided separate cans for recycling purposes most people would still be that much and the extra cost of fixing what the people mess up would be on the backs of riders who would rather not pay for such things.

Respect for us riders is getting us from point A to point B in the expected estimated amount of time schedule for the travel and with a reasonable level of comfort. Everything else is a bonus. A trash can is a bonus. I can’t recall the last time I threw something out in a subway trash can.

Jeff October 17, 2012 - 9:45 am

Ummm…. No. Sit-down restaurants MAY have garbage cans for people to throw their litter in. Maybe banks and others that generate paper waste. Most other businesses actually DON’T have garbage cans for customers.

Bolwerk October 17, 2012 - 12:02 pm

Many cities worldwide provide little in the way of public waste receptacles. It’s not a problem for them, and they save on collection costs.

Anon256 October 17, 2012 - 1:42 pm

It is a problem, it adds up to a massive inconvenience for their citizens. They don’t save on collection costs, they just push them off to individuals as an unfunded mandate, while throwing away potential economies of scale. Sadly, this kind of preference for an inefficient hidden tax over more efficient open socialism seems to be a defining feature of US politics today.

Bolwerk October 17, 2012 - 3:14 pm

Like hell. It adds up to a massive convenience for their citizens, who don’t have to deal with litter from track fires and the general unsightliness of having trash strewn everywhere. Individuals should take responsibility for their own waste. When they don’t, everybody is stuck with it (and the bill).

New York, as usual, is the one that’s behind on this one.

Anon256 October 18, 2012 - 4:39 am

Trash is only strewn everywhere when the MTA fails to do its job of emptying the bins.

Bolwerk October 18, 2012 - 12:13 pm

It couldn’t possibly do that job. There are too many riders, and they produce too much waste, and only so many trash trains can run. The MTA isn’t a trash collection agency, and the only business it has worrying about trash is punching you in the dick when you litter.

Anon256 October 18, 2012 - 1:38 pm

If there’s not enough capacity for trash trains then move the trash on the surface (from stations with elevators anyway). If the MTA’s workers are too overpaid to do it, pay the Department of Sanitation or a private contractor to do it.

The MTA isn’t a heating or lighting agency either, and the cost of those facilities over the whole system isn’t cheap, but it still provides them to riders.

R. Graham October 18, 2012 - 3:10 pm

That’s a legal nightmare and you know it. The elevators are for passengers with disabilities and most of those elevators are already disgusting. Using the stairs is an accident waiting to happen. Then someone is going to sue.

It’s not a matter of being overpaid. It’s a matter that they shouldn’t have to pay to do it themselves or pay someone else. Taking your trash with you is not an inconvenience. Systems worldwide do it but for some reason NYC is the only one that HAS to provide cans and trash dumping services?

Bolwerk October 19, 2012 - 4:06 am

Light and arguably heat (part of the year) are both necessary for the use of the system, and either way they don’t negatively impact the operation of the system. Trash actually does, and it’s not needed at all.

And why would anyone want to take the garbage that is piled in our subway and just pile it on the street for sanitation to pick up twice a week? What is wrong with just letting people hold their candy bar wrapper until they get to a place where they can responsibly dispose of it?

R. Graham October 17, 2012 - 3:53 pm

This is a perfect example of passing responsibility from the citizen to the powers. I’m sorry for getting all historic here but this country was built on the idea that people have the freedoms to do for themselves and it’s gotten so petty to the point that we can’t even take a little piece of garbage with us without demanding that someone provide us with a can to toss the items out.

Personal responsibility starts with the self and not someone else.

Anon256 October 18, 2012 - 1:54 pm

So I take it you keep all your trash in your house then, and don’t rely on a government agency to collect it, or a public landfill to store it forever?

While it is true that American culture has historically been unusually and sometimes fanatically individualistic, it has been rare to outright deny that in many situations we can accomplish more together than we can individually. Moving garbage around in large batches is more efficient than each person carrying their own garbage. From a societal point of view, for the MTA to abdicate its responsibility and transfer it to riders is penny wise and pound foolish, and emblematic of how dysfunctional the agency and the politics surrounding it have become.

R. Graham October 18, 2012 - 4:12 pm

Stop exaggering. That’s not the point and you know it. The point was when you walk the street you don’t ask for someone to hold your had so stop expecting to be pampered. Take your garbage with you.

What I would really recommend you do is to ride the rails late one night in hopes of bumping into the trash collection process. Just so you can see how inconvenient it really is with your own eyes because none of us will be able to tell you otherwise.

I’ve seen it. It slows late night service. If the process slows late night service how are we to honestly expect an increase in collections?

Bolwerk October 19, 2012 - 4:09 am

I’m tired of holding in my feces until I get to a restroom. I want to just drop my feces on the street. Is that too much to ask?

BrooklynBus October 16, 2012 - 9:25 pm

Even if this program is working in the subways, and I’m skeptical that it is, all it succeeds in doing is to move the problem elsewhere to the streets. Litter baskets are overflowing anyway because the DOS does not empty them often enough in certain neighborhoods. We don’t need dirtier streets.

It may work at a few stations, but if it is expanded further, there will come a point after a certain number of baskets are removed that the stations and tracks will become dirtier again.

Andrew October 16, 2012 - 9:52 pm

This is only half of the issue.

The other half is that, as the volume of trash collected have been increasing, NYCT has found it impossible to pick up all of the trash in the system in a timely fashion without unduly disrupting passenger train service. If you dislike the piles of garbage bags in many stations, and the rats they attract, then maybe reducing the volume of trash collected isn’t such a bad thing.

Bolwerk October 16, 2012 - 10:57 pm

Yeah, you know, that is where the City Council could come in. We really should require a deposit on packaging and plastic bags.

I don’t really get the need for it anyway. I do things like buy bags of catfood, and pet stores and supermarkets don’t even want to listen to me when I say I don’t want a bag to hold my bag. It’s the time of absurd that should only be seen in a Camus piece.

If I don’t get that bag, the entire economy will grind to a halt!

Simon October 17, 2012 - 12:34 pm

Those plastic bags are a big contributor to clogging track drains which causes signal malfunction.

Anon256 October 18, 2012 - 4:59 am

Yeah, requiring a charge of a few cents for each plastic bag as is now done in DC seems like a good idea. The cost is low enough that it’s not a hardship for anybody if they actually need a bag, but it’s enough to keep people from taking them thoughtlessly and keep stores from foisting them on you automatically.

I’m not sure how much volume plastic bags actually take in the trash cans though, and surely they aren’t what attracts the rats.

R. Graham October 18, 2012 - 4:15 pm

They cause a boatload of secondary issues as mentioned before. Clogged drains. Caught in trees. And that’s to name two.

IsaacB October 18, 2012 - 9:34 pm

Rector Street and 57th are relatively lightly used stations. 57th also has no concessions (I don’t know about Rector). Studying these two stations doesn’t tell you much about how a move like getting rid of the trash cans will work in the overall system. If I had to guess, incoming trash will end up left under a train seat.

This whole thing reminds me of the TA’s anti-graffiti experiment in the late 70s (under president John Simpson). They painted a single train in white urethane. They closely monitored the train for any new graffiti and quickly scrubbed it off. After 90 days (or so), the TA declared the experiment a success and painted the entire steel fleet white (leaving out the monitoring and quick cleanups until Dave Gun instituted graffiti cleanup at terminal stations.

Ian October 24, 2012 - 2:10 pm

The problem with this sort of pilot study is that its simply too small. The pilot was in stations isolated from other stations without trashcans, in neighborhoods with a lot of street level trashcans. Did riders actually produce less trash, or simply relocate that trash to other receptacles in different stations? Should the lesson learned from this pilot program suggest that trash cans produce litter? Maybe the city should just eliminate all public trash cans and solve the litter problem? Or perhaps the MTA analysis is wrong.


Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy