Home MTA Absurdity To combat trash, Transit to…remove trash cans?

To combat trash, Transit to…remove trash cans?

by Benjamin Kabak

Straphangers are often creative in disposing of garbage if the closest trash can is too far away. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The MTA, as we well know, has a bit of a trash problem. Garbage piles up everywhere underground, and rodents find the subway tracks and platforms to be very comfortable homes. For years, with budgets on the decline, Transit has searched for ways to combat what they have termed the “unsightliness and malodor of trash bags” in subway platforms, and now, as the agency ramps up trash collection efforts, they’re trying something counterintuitive: At two stations, the authority has removed trash cans in an effort to cut down on trash.

The pilot program in place at 8th St. and Broadway and Flushing/Main Street has earned headlines this morning for the sheer audacity of the idea, but it is part of a broader effort aimed at keeping stations cleaner. The measures are outlined in a report presented yesterday, and they include a targeted effort to eliminate rats, the prioritization of garbage collection trains and the addition of more refuse trains and trucks. Ultimately, the MTA has to collect and remove the 40 tons per day of trash that grows in the system, and it’s finding the task challenging.

The intriguing centerpiece of this effort though is clearly the plan to remove trash cans. Michael Grynbaum has more on this idea:

The idea is to reduce the load on the authority’s overtaxed garbage crew, which is struggling to complete its daily rounds of clearing out 40 tons of trash from the system. But it also offers a novel experiment: will New Yorkers stop throwing things away in the subway if there is no place to put them?

…The no-bin experiment is a more unusual approach, but it has precedent. In London, bins are banned from some Underground stations; in Washington, a similar program was abandoned because of riders’ complaints.

The PATH train has had no bins since 2001 because of security concerns. Since the removal, “it seems there is less trash,” said Ron Marsico, a spokesman, although he noted that the PATH system was smaller and more easily cleaned than the subway.

I understand why the MTA is pursuing this line of thinking, but there’s a clear conceptual gap here. Both the WMATA and the PATH systems are cleaner than ours because food is banned. The DC Metro engaged in a public crackdown of eating and drinking a few years ago, and the Port Authority has been diligent in keeping food out of the system as well.

Some MTA officials recognize this conflict as well. Board member Charles Moerdler wants the authority to study “the extent to which foodstuffs on trains or sold on the platforms is either deleterious to the system, or can in some way be curbed or eliminated, which I would favor.” But John Gaito, Transit’s trash guru, expressed a more resigned attitude to The Times. “It’s impractical,” he said. “You have a lot of customers who need to eat food on the system.” I’m not convinced anyone needs to eat in the unsanitary conditions of the subway, but that’s long been the argument for not banning food.

The real problem though is one of human behavior in the subway. Unless the MTA bans free newspapers that make up 44 percent of system-wide waste, people will just use whatever they want as a garbage can. With the nearest trash can over a city block away, riders at 7th Ave. in Brooklyn simply improvised, and the back end of Nevins St. has also been turned into a makeshift garbage can. The solution to combating trash in stations involves more garbage cans which inevitably lead to more garbage runs and more expenditures on garbage collection.

For now, though, that’s not in the cards, and neither is a ban on food. Instead, we get this strangely counterintuitive pilot program that seems to be showing returns at one station but more trash at the other, and everyone is skeptical. “NYC Transit doesn’t have the money to keep stations clean,” Gene Russianoff said to the Daily News. “So even a ridiculous idea sounds good to them.”

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John-2 October 25, 2011 - 1:21 pm

This kind of sounds like it’s in the same conceptual ballpark as the early 1980s idea of painting all the IRT trains white to combat the graffiti epidemic. You’re not really solving the root problem; you’re hoping that by taking a side action (removing the trash cans) that the root problem (people treating the subway like it’s the Fresh Kills landfill) will then go away.

Up next — the MTA announces a revised plan to combat the refuse problem by painting the trash white at all IRT stations.

BrooklynBus October 25, 2011 - 1:56 pm

Exactly. You are not solving the problem, just moving it to the streets where it becomes someone else’s problem. Even if it is successful at two stations does not mean that it would succeed systemwide. While some passengers may be willing to hold the trash until they get off the train to deposit it at another station that does have recepticles does not mean they would be willing to carry it with them to a litter basket outside the system,if they can find one, or until they get to their home or office to get rid of it.

Next step – give out $50 fines on a wide scale for people leaving their newspaper behind when you give them no alternative. Great way to encourage the use of mass transit by making it more inconvenient, but whoever said that the MTA wants more people on its trains and buses anyway. They only would have to provide more service which would increase their deficit anyway. Bad idea.

Andrew Smith October 25, 2011 - 9:08 pm

You (along with many other comment writers) are misreading the story. This is not about litter. Litter has nothing whatever to do with it.

To the contrary, the real problem that the MTA is dealing with here is the opposite of a litter problem:

Passengers insist on putting their trash into cans that the MTA cannot or will not get its employees to empty in a reasonably efficient and cost effective manner.

Emptying trash in a system where maybe one in five people (but probably more like one in 20) throws anything into a trash basket would be a cheap and simple task for any well-run organization. Hell, it would be cheap and easy for most badly run operations. The MTA’s admission that it might have to suspend prime time service for trash trains illustrates — more vividly than anything I can remember in recent history — that this is really one of the most dysfunctional organizations in the universe.

How did we really think they were going to manage to build a new subway line when they cannot empty trash cans that get moderate use?

At the very least, everyone who agreed to this pilot project should be fired because the MTA clearly does not need people who think it’s even conceivable that providing a basic service is too difficult for the organization and too much for customers to ask

R. Graham October 26, 2011 - 1:00 am

There is no real “cost effective” way to dispose of 40 tons of trash a day from underground, grade level, undercut and elevated stations. You have to run a train station to station just to collect it all.

40 tons A DAY! That’s absurd! That’s more a reflection of people than it ever will be on the MTA but self reflection has always been the enemy of convenience.

BrooklynBus October 26, 2011 - 6:41 pm

40 tons a day? I must have missed that. Got to be a typo or just a lie. In the 1980s the entire NYC generated 20 tons a day of trash and that number has significantly dropped with recycling. 40 tons a day is just impossible for subway riders only.

VLM October 26, 2011 - 7:06 pm

Come on, Al! It’s not that hard to believe. Subway ridership was a fraction of its currents levels back in the good old dark ages of the 1980s, and no one was standing on the steps of every half-popular subway station passing out barely literate free newspapers. Since the MTA doesn’t recycle at the refuse collection point (and only after), of course the number is going to be higher. 40 tons from 5.3 million people isn’t a lot.

BrooklynBus October 27, 2011 - 11:37 pm

You are correct. 40 tons per day is reasonable. I should have said that the entire amount collected for NYC in the 1980s was 20,000 tons per day, not 20 tons per day. Today it is 11,000 tons and another 4,000 recycled per day.

Andrew Smith October 28, 2011 - 12:49 pm

The more trash there is in a limited space, the more cost efficient you can be in disposing of it. All you really need are trash cans that are big enough that they don’t overflow during a single day of use and then a single trash train run per station to empty them.

If you think this is impossible, then your long abduction by the MTA has given you Stockholm Syndrome, which is a major problem. Riders have been screwed so long that they have really begun to believe there is no better way.

Kai B October 25, 2011 - 1:41 pm

If anything we need more trash cans. Whenever I look around I see, at most, three cans for a 600-foot station, and many times, especially outside of Manhattan, the number is two.

I’ll generally take my trash with me and dispose of it when I get off the train. Not everyone is this courteous.

Christopher October 25, 2011 - 2:23 pm

Agreed. Some of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been in like Toronto have trash cans everywhere.

SEAN October 25, 2011 - 2:52 pm

But Toronto is not New York. People who I met from there as well as Vancouver are so well mannered compared to NYers, it’s rediculous.

BrooklynBus October 25, 2011 - 2:43 pm

Delaying passenger trains to pick up garbage, the next step according to Prendergast, is another ridiculous idea. When I used to ride the R on Queens Blvd around noon, six years ago, there was a routine 15 minute delay so because of the garbage train. It was wrong then and it would be worse if it becomes widespread.

VLM October 25, 2011 - 2:52 pm

So, realizing that I’ve been aggressive in my discussions with you, I have an honest question for you based on your comments here.

Up above, you say that the TA shouldn’t eliminate trash cans because it’s rude to the customer to make them carry trash out of the system with them. I mostly agree with you there (but I don’t think that should be an excuse for those who litter). Then, you say that the TAcan’t delay passenger trains to add more garbage runs. What do you propose then? If the pilot isn’t good enough and the status quo isn’t good enough, what’s the solution to the trash problem?

The TA isn’t going to run more mid-day trash runs. The idea here is to get garbage out of stations before 6 a.m. Why not run more overnight garbage trains a few days a week?

BrooklynBus October 25, 2011 - 5:16 pm

Nothing wrong with more overnight garbage runs. There is no better time to do it. However, nowhere in the report do I see when these additional refuse runs will be made. Since I’ve already seen them during the midday, how do I know that additional runs are not proposed for midday? A 15-minute delay at that time of day is a little ridiculous.

You ask how to reduce trash? You could add more recepticles not take them away. The pictures Ben shows where people try to stick their trash where it doesn’t blow away proves there are not enough receptacles and they reluctantly left their newspaper there. The MTA should learn from those pictures. Also, others have suggested banning food and drink altogether and free newspapers. Those are alsp possibilities. Remember when the MTA removed all its chewing gum and candy machines from the subways in the 1960s to reduce trash? That seemed to be a good move. Of course the best answer is to get people to cooperate which his easier said than done. But removing receptacles does not seem like the answer. Also, if they add more refuse runs, will any money even be saved?

R. Graham October 26, 2011 - 1:07 am

Adding more receptacles is not going to solve the problem. That’s just a convenient way of back loading more tons of trash. Now those evening delays become even longer.

What I would like to point out is what that 40 tons consist of. A majority of that trash? Recyclable materials. Don’t ask for numbers as I don’t have them and don’t need them. Just ask yourself what YOU yourself toss in a subway trash can. As a matter of fact ask yourself the top 10 items you toss away. I bet a majority of you will find that you are tossing away something that should be recycled. Yes the MTA does recycle as a part of disposing of that trash it’s sorted. So not only is the MTA in the trash business it’s also in the recycling business. More of all of our dollars going to waste all because of the inconvenience of not bringing your trash into the system or taking it with you to a place that can better handle it.

BrooklynBus October 26, 2011 - 1:24 pm

I didn’t mean adding trash receptacles in places they already exist, but where they are needed. Look at Ben’s picture that seems to show a significant portion of the station. Do you see one trash receptacle?

BrooklynBus October 26, 2011 - 6:49 pm

Just heard on TV that the MTA said they have no money to add any additional refuse runs. Since you mentioned it, somehow I thought that was part of the plan.

VLM October 26, 2011 - 7:08 pm

Ah, TV news, the last bastion of Truth on the Air. I’m not sure what broadcast you were watching, but the plan is to add more refuse runs. It was mentioned today during the MTA Board meeting by various TA officials, and it’s in full color as part of the presentation Ben linked to. Based on my knowledge of the situation, whatever 30 second story you saw was the inaccurate one.

BrooklynBus October 27, 2011 - 11:22 pm

The story I saw was Tom Prendergast speaking. The words came directly out of his mouth. I suggest you reread the report again. There are no plans to add any more refuse runs. It says two more refuse trains were recently added, not that more runs will be added in the future which is what you stated.

Grrrumpy Miner October 25, 2011 - 2:55 pm

When it comes to our fine subway system,I ask thyself….Do some of these people treat their very own living rooms like they treat the subway stations?If they do,god help them for they must lead very pathetic lives.

Tsuyoshi October 25, 2011 - 3:15 pm

This is a tactic Japan has been using for a long time on city streets. They removed most garbage and recycling cans because for some reason it causes people to litter less often. Usually the only places you can find garbage and recycling cans on the street are right in front of convenience stores (which are slightly more common than in New York).

Ironically, they don’t do this in most train stations, although if I remember correctly they removed the cans in Tokyo subway stations because of terrorism concerns.

There is just no way it would reduce litter here though. There are way too many people in New York who will throw garbage anywhere they please. Although I’m not sure if it would actually make things much worse, since there are so many people who litter even when garbage cans are 10 feet away.

Hank October 25, 2011 - 4:30 pm

Exactly. People in Japan have shame and collective responsiblity. How can you expect people who take no responsibility for themselves, live like animals, and are indifferent to every other person around them to put MORE effort into cleaning up after themselves?

Evan October 25, 2011 - 4:43 pm

I tend to agree. I was walking to work yesterday and this fellow had a coffee cup with him. In the course of walking from 7th to 8th Ave, he throws the napkins that came with the coffee on the ground, the disposable coffee cozy and the tab to open the lid. All on the ground. I found myself getting so worked up. The city is dirty enough as it is PLUS it’s so incredibly rude. I just can’t believe some people sometimes.

Alon Levy October 25, 2011 - 10:10 pm

Singapore uses the opposite tactic: put trash cans everywhere so that not littering is easy. The huge fine for littering is mostly for show – it’s unenforced. (However, vandalism carries disproportionate punishment – e.g. the ban on selling chewing gum came as a response to people who stuck gum on the laser eye on the subway that was responsible to automatically closing doors, so the doors were stuck open.)

Eric F. October 25, 2011 - 3:16 pm

The PATH system has no garbage cans at all. The stations are quite clean actually. In fact, they are much cleaner than MTA stations. That does not mean there is a cause and effect relationship, however. It could be that the different served populations and the sheer amount of use could be the cause of the difference. It’s certainly smart of the MTA to roll out a trial program to see what happens.

Benjamin Kabak October 25, 2011 - 3:18 pm

PATH also doesn’t allow eating or drinking. That’s one of the main reasons why it’s so much cleaner.

Eric F. October 25, 2011 - 4:12 pm

True, though people do in fact eat and drink on PATH in violation of the rule. The ride is shorter though, which probably prevents anyone from undertaking a long meal on one of the cars. (People also still walk through moving cars, which was prohibited on PATH long before it was on MTA trains.)

The PATH no refuse can policy probably causes a bit of the externality of having people dump their trash at the nearest can to the station exit. In fairness to PATH, I think the policy was a reaction to 9-11, which traumatized PATH, legitimately, as much as one can imagine.

The Cobalt Devil October 26, 2011 - 3:39 pm

PATH is also a commuter railroad vs a true, inner-city subway. The riders are mostly middle-class office workers, suburban day-trippers or college kids going to school. Not many homeless beggars or baby mommas with five sloppy kids in tow.

I have to admit, in 30 years of riding the NYC subway, I never felt the need to eat a Big Mac or down half a chicken and fries while riding the train. I’d rather starve than put my hands near my mouth when on the IRT, but hey, what do I know?

Grrrumpy Miner October 25, 2011 - 5:07 pm

Try enforcing that on the NYCT Subway System here.The cops will not write up tickets unless their higher ups give the cops “Performance Objectives” aka Quotas and those 2 girls eating Spaghetti where that ruckus with another passenger happened,the guy having ribs and stowing the rice under the seat or just someone drinking a grande cappuchino from Starbucks will scream bloody murder at the cops if they are bold enough to give them tickets.Taking out the garbage cans as well is just looking for trouble.It will never work for the rats will have a feast.

Jerrold October 25, 2011 - 3:17 pm

THAT’S how to fight subway litter?
Maybe NEXT the idiot bureaucrats will decide to fight arson by removing all the curbside fire hydrants.

JAzumah October 25, 2011 - 3:41 pm

If we can’t afford to collect garbage in the nation’s largest transit system, we are done for. That is the most asinine thing I have heard in a while.

R. Graham October 26, 2011 - 1:12 am

I honestly don’t see why I should be paying to collect everyone else’s trash in the subway. I honestly don’t see why I should be paying part of a fare to mop a subway train when it reaches each terminal of his run during the day because someone spilled something when it was on it’s way downtown and someone else repeated it again on the uptown trip. $40K a year for someone to mop something that shouldn’t be as filthy to begin with. That’s ridiculous!

The Cobalt Devil October 26, 2011 - 4:14 pm

Over 5 million riders a day. If you know of any place where 5 million people can congregate and NOT make some kind of mess, let me know.

I’m not sure moppers are making $40k a year; probably more like $20k. That being said, the less trash brought on the subway, the less the cleaners have to pick up. When the subway started running in 1904, the only trash was probably newspapers and the occasional lost glove. No fast food, no disposable diapers, no chicken bones and sunflower seeds. Americans in general, and NYC residents in particular, have become used to “disposing” our garbage somewhere.

Nathanael November 11, 2011 - 4:58 pm

Actually, you’d be horrified by “eating on the run” and trash disposal practices in 1904.

Hank October 25, 2011 - 4:33 pm

The WMATA has a good solution to the newspaper problem. Install bins in and around the subway station for newspaper recycling that only can fit newspapers in (narrow slots). Should be explored here.

Even better, make the free newspaper distributors contribute (in DC, the WaPo helped fund the bins).

Josh October 25, 2011 - 4:52 pm

“[W]ill New Yorkers stop throwing things away in the subway if there is no place to put them?”

No, New Yorkers will litter, because a lot of New Yorkers are assholes.

Scott E October 25, 2011 - 5:42 pm

I believe that it might work, particularly if those who used to empty trash cans are instead spending more time sweeping and scrubbing stations. If it looks nicer and better maintained, perhaps people will treat it with more respect.

But… as a pilot in its current form, it’s destined for failure. It needs to be an all-or-nothing type of deal, where passengers are trained to take out the trash they take in because they know there are no receptacles on the platform – anywhere, in any station. No one will be bothered to memorize which stations have trash cans and which do not; the thought will be (as it is now), if there’s no trash can within eyesight, then use the nearest payphone conduit, or fire hose box as an alternate.

I wonder what the response was after the cans were removed from PATH. Did it get dirtier for awhile until people learned? I’d be surprised if they immediately improved with respect to cleanliness, or if it did, it was a result of lower ridership immediately following 9/11, not because of fewer trash cans.

Anon October 25, 2011 - 6:43 pm

Are there not fines for littering in NY? In Australia, we have a minor litter problem, but it’s not bad. There’s trash cans on the station platforms and through the stations, and the vast majority use them. There’s separate paper recycling bins for the free transit newspapers.

People don’t tend to litter mainly becuase there’s ready disposal options in most places, but I think also there’s that 1% chance you’d be fined if you did litter.

The trains also get a quick once-over by cleaners at the end of most runs, so they’re fairly tidy to start with, which encourages people to keep it that way.

For a while we had trash cans in train stations removed (I think as a precaution at at time of heightened terror threat) but they were soon replaced with clear bags suspended from a holder. I don’t recall littering being any worse back then, I think most people just carried their rubbish to a street bin (which were retained).

Hank October 25, 2011 - 8:04 pm

you need to spend a little more time on the MTA. Cops are only interested in busting fare beaters (quota rewards for that). They’ll sit there and let the homeless defecate in a subway car without lifting a finger. The motto of NYCers, particularly municipal workers: “Not my job!” (sadly often followed by “Now gimmme!”)

UESider October 25, 2011 - 8:31 pm

This is not a single solution… some stations could get along with fewer cans, maybe some with more but no cans is definitely not going to work – it’ll be 1980 again.

PATH riders generally have a short ride so can dispose of their trash when they get back to the street (or to an MTA station). So, this isn’t the greatest comparison. WMATA is also a poor comparison as the riders there are quite different than many of the riders of the MTA.

Newspaper producers should be responsible for the costs of their own paper collection – whether by sharing in the cost or running a recycling collection.

Guarantee a public service campaign with signs asking people to carry out their trash would help reduce a few percentage points. I would make an effort to carry out trash when I can but at other times would be quite irritated (and rebellious) if I really needed to discard something and there were no cans at all… trash might find its way into a phone booth, track or car…

JP October 25, 2011 - 10:25 pm

whaddaya mean there’s no place to put the trash? they put it on the platform, on the tracks (hooray, fires!) and all over the cars! plenny’o room!
What, like you ain’t seen it there?

Chicken Underwear October 26, 2011 - 5:32 am

Maybe they can put ads on the trash cans.

I got a better idea. The MTA should charge AM New York, Metro and the other free newspapers a fee to distribute their rags at the entrances to the subway. They are the companies that are profiting from the things that become litter.

Better yet, we should add a special tax on Styrofoam.


BrooklynBus October 26, 2011 - 1:26 pm

The City tried putting ads on litter baskets in the 70s. It didn’t work because companies didn’t want their products associated with trash.

Chicken Underwear October 26, 2011 - 2:44 pm

Our City Council Reps put their names on the cans.

Gil October 27, 2011 - 9:51 am

As someone who rides the Path daily, I’ll let you in on a little secret: lots of people put their trash underneath the benches while they wait. I’m sure that a fair amount of them would use trash bins if they were available.

So long as the train isn’t packed, I occasionally eat on the Path even though know it’s not allowed. Although frankly, I thought the situation was exactly the same on the Subway until just now.

Nathanael November 11, 2011 - 5:00 pm

Idiotic move by the MTA.

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