In a city as densely populated as New York City, government agencies such as the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY) have their work cut out for them when it comes to strategically managing the 365-day-a-year task of picking up the city's garbage.
Along with New York City's 8 million residents comes an inordinate amount of garbage and refuse--by some accounts nearly two pounds of trash per person per day. That's a lot of garbage, and according to the DSNY's most recent annual report, the world's largest sanitation department deployed more than 5,000 trucks in 2002-03 to collect the 53,000 tons of curbside refuse and garbage generated by New Yorkers every single week.
In order for this monumental task to be manageable, the DSNY has established rules and regulations governing the process of garbage disposal, recycling and collection. Without these rules--and without the cooperation of city residents--New Yorkers would soon find ourselves in need of tracking systems to navigate our way through canyons of old Chinese take-out cartons, pizza boxes, and other, nastier refuse.
Regardless of whether you live in a multi-family co-op or condo building or a single-family home, the rules and regulations established by the DSNY are essentially the same.
"The rules are the same for all residential establishments and are not dependent on population density," says Taryn Duckett, the DSNY's public information officer.
Peter Grech, president of the New York Superintendents Technical Association (STA), (and a building super with more than three decades of experience) agrees, though not without some reservation.
"I don't think the rules and regulations are different if you live in a cooperative, a condo, or a rental for that matter--but it does seem to me that the rules are enforced more strictly in certain areas of the city. If you live on the Upper East Side, you may see the rules and regulations enforced a lot more than say, if you lived in Midtown on the West Side."
And some former residents believe that certain regulations--particularly as they apply to curbside and street cleaning--seem to be enforced to different degrees. When it comes to neighborhoods such as Hell's Kitchen and the western reaches of Midtown, things are a little different, despite rules strictly prohibiting illegal dumping and bounties (up to 50 percent of the fine collected) offered to anyone who helps apprehend illegal dumpers. Here, it is not unusual to walk through the area of town some residents call "the Dirty Thirties" and find broken restaurant equipment, refrigeration units, or discarded water heaters carelessly junked along the side streets and left to rust for days and even weeks. Current fines start at $1,500 and can range as high as $20,000 for illegal dumping.
At one point last summer, according to building manager Julio Rivera, who manages a five-story walk-up on 36th Street, there was a pair of demolished hot-dog-and-pretzel carts languishing on his block for several days before anyone came to remove them. Regardless of the universality of garbage collection regulations in the city, it would seem that some residential/industrial areas may sometimes garner less attention than more upscale neighborhoods on the Upper East Side.
Occasional disparities aside, the DSNY does work closely with the City Council and with the public in order to establish new rules and enforce existing rules to help maintain garbage-free streets in all neighborhoods, regardless of geography or demographic. When a new rule needs to be introduced or an old one altered, it is presented to the City Council, then to the public in a series of open hearings to allow residents to weigh in. Once the hearings conclude, the council members vote, deciding on final passage or death of a bill. The measure then proceeds to the mayor for approval or veto.
Recent changes and revisions to waste-management rules and regulations have included the reduction and then reinstatement of the city's recycling program, which was drastically scaled back due to budget cuts in 2002.
According to Duckett, "In April of 2004, full recycling was reinstated by the DSNY after being suspended for two years in July of 2002 because of severe budget cuts. Plastic recycling returned in July of 2003, though collection was done on alternate weeks. As of April 2004, the department restored full weekly recycling of glass, metal and plastic, as well as paper and cardboard."
"In addition," Duckett says, "the DSNY began residential routing in September of 2004 to enforce dirty sidewalk and gutter rules in residential areas. The new law requires the DSNY to establish two one-hour enforcement routing periods per day when Notices of Violation (NOVs) can be issued to homeowners for litter in front of their property."
Along with impacting the city's bottom line, changes to garbage collection procedure affect building staff and residents as well, says Grech.
"After a two-year absence, we're back to the old recycling rules," he says. "Now all bags used for recycling must be clear bags. There are many intricacies in the recycling rules. In some parts of the state, different colored glass needs to be separated. Some plastics are recyclable, some are not. An example of this is the large plastic soda bottles. The bottles themselves are recyclable, but the caps are not, so they need to be separated. Business correspondence and personal letters and envelopes are paper products, so they need to be recycled, or you run the risk of getting a fine."
And it doesn't stop there. When it comes to regular garbage, says Grech, there are rules that govern its weight and the number of items that can be disposed of at one time, whether it includes hazardous items--such as air conditioners containing Freon or batteries containing acid--and whether it's bulk garbage (i.e. furniture).
As for the day-to-day impact such special rules have on building staff, Grech has some ambivalence. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "I'm all for the program. However, it does create a lot more stress for the superintendents and porters working in large residential buildings. There are lots of special rules, and as superintendents we need to know it all. It's us and our staff who ultimately need to properly separate the materials prior to putting the trash on the street for pickup."
Despite the occasional changes, revisions, and additions to the city's garbage disposal rulebook, Duckett says the rules have remained pretty standard. "At the end of the day, the pick-up routines have remained fairly constant for the past few decades. Collection schedules have fluctuated over the years in terms of days and frequency, but overall, the DSNY has tried to remain consistent with our refuse collection methods."
The rules and regulations established by the DSNY are enforced collaboratively by the Sanitation Department as well as by self-monitoring by superintendents, managers, and residents themselves.
"On the street, the collection guys may refuse to pick up a bag or an item if it does not comply with the rules and regulations," explains Grech. "Inspectors in vehicles may be ahead of the truck and will inspect the garbage before it is collected to ensure it meets the criteria set forth by the department. If it doesn't--because of weight, material or because it's something that should have been bagged for recycling--the building will get a violation."
"Within a residential building, the ultimate responsibility for making sure the building adheres to the DSNY rules lies with the board," Grech continues. "They need to make sure all the residents are aware of the recycling and refuse rules. On a day-to-day basis, however, the superintendent has to enforce the rules. We are the ones who have to wade through the garbage and sort recycling items properly. Otherwise, our building will be cited. The biggest violators of the rules within co-op and condo buildings tend to be the maids and housekeepers--often because they're just not informed--so education is key."
Both Grech and Duckett agree that education is the key to any successful building-wide waste management program. The DSNY concentrates a good part of its efforts on educating the inhabitants of the city on the regulations and their programs. Beyond the department's website, the DSNY has many other ways to keep everyone informed--including the city's 311 Citizen Service Center hotline, which residents and supers can call 24 hours a day for recycling rules, collection times, and information about how to dispose of large items or report illegal dumping activity.
"The DSNY also distributes advertisements via e-mail (including electronic flyers and pamphlets) and via television," says Duckett. "Residents, building management, and landlords can visit the DSNY website for service updates or announcements, and we're also present at community board meetings where residents can ask questions personally and receive information concerning their specific neighborhoods."
"The Department of Sanitation has done a great job of keeping people informed," agrees Grech. "They send all superintendents and residents mass mailings informing us of updates, changes in procedures, new programs. They also ran an advertising campaign when the recycling laws were reinstated. Overall, for the size of New York, the department does an excellent job of keeping our streets and neighborhoods as clean as possible. They are a great bunch of people--though I certainly would not like to do what they do!"
At the end of the day, the DSNY has a monumental task to accomplish. Keeping the Big Apple clean, however, goes beyond the DSNY and involves each and every city resident and visitor. Everyone has to chip in and do their part. If you're not sure about a rule or regulation, want to learn more about a specific program, or simply want to find out the current collection schedule for your block, you can visit the DSNY website at www.nyc.gov/html/dos/. The site provides useful information outlining all the rules and regulations in DSNY's Digest of Codes, available online in a portable document format (PDF). The site also has the entire recycling program spelled out for residential properties as well as commercial properties. In addition, visitors can review the collection schedules, latest news and releases, and various programs run by the DSNY, including information about its illegal dumping program. Managers and supers can also visit the website of the New York Superintendents Technical Association at www.nycsta.org.