There are plenty of things that unite New Yorkers and contribute to our city’s identity. We refuse to be knocked down, even when the odds are stacked against us. We care deeply about our communities and step up to support them, especially when our leaders fall short.
But there is one thing in particular that truly brings New Yorkers from all boroughs together—trash. The constant exasperation over the piles of garbage that line our streets is familiar among our city’s residents, and it prompts justifiable questions about how the greatest city in the world, with the most resources and a long history of urban innovation, can be so bad at keeping its streets clean.
Mayor Fiorello Laguardia was known to say that “there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the trash.” Laguardia was right: a city thrives when it is managed effectively, and flounders—as ours does now—when it lacks the vision and understanding to see the solutions that are right in front of it.
Certainly, there are unique challenges to doing this in the most populous city in the country—and as we’ve seen with the current mayor, not every leader can actually get the job done. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In fact, as we’ve seen in cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Baltimore, there are already effective methods and technologies in use that, if brought to New York, could drastically improve our residents’ quality of life.
By leveraging data analysis and visualization tools, including a New York City CleanStat system modeled after that of those forward-looking cities, Shaun Donovan will finally bring innovations to our city’s trash collection operation that should have occurred long ago. Shaun, with the unique combination of bold ideas to lead New York City out of the pandemic and into a brighter future, and the decades of experience tackling crises at every level of government needed to bring these ideas to life, is precisely the type of leader that will make the improvements to cleanliness and quality of life across the city that New Yorkers have been demanding for years.
Catching Up on Sanitation Innovation
Achieving effective trash collection starts with looking to other cities that have led the way while our progress has lagged.
The Los Angeles CleanStat program is an innovative initiative that maps and grades every single street in the city from 1 (clean) to 3 (not clean). Within just one year of launching mapping-based sanitation initiatives, Los Angeles reduced the prevalence of its category 3 streets by 82% and category 2 (somewhat clean) streets by 84%. By using the street cleanliness map to make it easier for residents to submit 311 reports and monitor progress, the city’s sanitation department now addresses 4,000 to 6,000 service requests each quarter that would not have otherwise been called in.
Phoenix, which is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and is expected to double in size by 2040, has been taking bold steps in its fight against trash for some time. In the last 11 years, despite adding 40,000 new homes, the city hasn’t added a single additional garbage truck. It did so by equipping its garbage trucks with automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology, which allowed them to collect detailed data that tracked pickup routes and identify ways to collect trash more efficiently while maintaining safety.
Baltimore, which earned the 2020 What Works Cities Honor Roll distinction as a leader in using data to inform policy, launched its own CleanStat initiative and reduced the number of overdue cleaning work orders from roughly 16,000 to a few hundred before the pandemic.
Shaun likes to flip an old saying on its head: if they can make it anywhere, we can make it here—only better. By integrating data more effectively into the mapping, tracking, and picking up of our city’s garbage, we too can drastically improve the way we meet New Yorkers’ needs. And Los Angeles was able to have such incredible results by assessing the cleanliness of its streets quarterly, which means that if we’re able to track our progress closer to real-time, we can expect to see even better results. Read more about Shaun’s broader plans to foster creative, data-driven problem solving in our Innovation Platform.
These and other initiatives across the country are rethinking the way data and technology are used to deliver services more effectively and efficiently, and they set a clear example for our city to follow. It’s a strange position to be in, given our city’s long history as the leading global force in urban innovation, but it’s the situation that we find ourselves in because of the current administration’s lack of vision and disregard for New Yorkers. With Shaun as mayor, we will once again lead the way—but first we need to catch up, and fast.
Why it Matters
Trash is a nuisance, but it also has much more direct consequences on the health and wellbeing of New Yorkers and entire communities.
Pollution, litter, and other particulates can seriously hamper the city’s ability to handle and recover from major storms, including winter snow storms. Trash on our streets and sidewalks makes it more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists to get around, and contributes to wear and tear of streets that then require more frequent and costly upkeep. Poor air quality and potential exposure to hazardous waste are just a pair of the many ways that piled up garbage can make New Yorkers sick.
When it comes to supporting the health of our city and its residents through innovation, the prevalence of trash is a persistent reminder of our current mayor’s shortcomings and failed promises. In 2015, Mayor de Blasio pledged to cut the amount of garbage that our city shipped out to 360,000 tons, a 90% reduction from our 2005 levels. In the five years after he made that pledge, the amount of waste we exported actually rose from 3.17 million tons to 3.25 million tons, and the plan has since been abandoned.
Our trash situation only got worse as the pandemic took hold of our city and Mayor de Blasio took misstep after misstep—and as expected, our more vulnerable communities suffered the most. For example, in the middle of the summer the city slashed the number of weekly litter basket runs by more than half, and only partially restored them nearly three months later after a coalition of business leaders demanded that he take action. In a moment of crisis, our mayor gave up on New Yorkers and denied them desperately needed services instead of finding creative solutions to pressing challenges.
As we emerge from this crisis and work to make New York City healthier, more accessible, and more resilient through the policies outlined in Shaun’s Health, Transportation, and Climate plans, improving our trash collection capabilities must be a top priority.
But as outlined above, how we get there matters. The kind of accountability that cities like Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Phoenix—among others—have developed through their trash collection programs has the potential to foster a greater culture of responsiveness to resident needs and improved delivery of services across all facets.
As we move on from the failures of the current administration and toward a brighter future for New Yorkers, Shaun will rely on modern solutions to ensure people’s needs are being met quickly and transparently. All city data will be made publicly available as soon as we receive it, with privacy and security conserved at all times. And the city’s first Chief Equity Officer will set and oversee the meeting of goals meant to ensure that our investments first go to the communities that have received the least investment historically.
Keeping our city clean will also be more important than ever as we work to rebuild a tourism industry that has been deeply impacted by the pandemic, and that we will rely on to power the recovery of our city as a whole. A cleaner city will encourage more people to visit and inspire residents and commuters to spend time out and about. The cost of any and all technological solutions will be an investment in this recovery, partially offset by the economic activity that we expect to see if we are able to get New York onto lists of the cleanest cities in the world.