There is more to be said for sitting down on a Saturday night, cracking a bottle of wine, and digging into the annual report of the New York City Department of Sanitation than you might think.
If you are a reasonable person, you’ve probably never done this. And if you are the aforementioned reasonable person, you probably never will.
But if you were such a person who would do such a thing, you would quickly discover that facts about a city’s garbage are more fascinating and bizarre than you could ever have imagined.
I was inspired to spend my Saturday evening doing just this after a day at the Lab with Basurama, a Madrid-based collective that uses creative and artistic means to discuss, reflect upon, and rethink the meaning of waste.
After spending the morning creating flying saucers and instruments out of trash, and an afternoon rifling through the waste bins of the Lower East Side (I’m not joking; see highlights of their wacky and, at times, ridiculous Saturday workshop in the slideshow above), I realized how little I actually knew about New York City’s garbage.
And I found out that there is more to know than I thought.
Did you realize, for instance, that there are more than 25,000 litter baskets in New York City? That the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) responded to 5,747 compost-related e-mails in the fiscal year of 2010? Or that both Wicked’s Green Witch and Miss America 2010, Caressa Cameron, attended the third-anniversary celebration of the litter-fighting, urban-beautifying DSNY initiative Keep New York City Beautiful?
Well, maybe you’re also unaware of the fact that the department wrote 4,151 paychecks to snow laborers this winter, all of whom, the report notes, were “paid in a timely manner.” Or that the average time a visitor spends on the NYCWasteLess website is 9 minutes and 55 seconds.
If you did know these things, it may have been because they distracted you from other, more pertinent pieces of information contained in the report. Pieces of information that deserve a certain amount of attention.
One of these would be the fact that every week the DSNY requires 4,941 trucks to collect the 49,922 tons of curbside waste that New York residents produce at home, as well as 460 E-Z Pack Roll-on/Roll-off containerized trucks—yes, I had to look this up—to collect an additional 8,000 tons.
In case you don’t have a calculator on your iPhone, 57,922 tons per week multiplied by 52 equals more than 3 million tons per year, just in residential waste collected from the city’s 8.2 million inhabitants.
Add to that the 16,000 tons of recyclables—which, Basurama points out, are still waste—collected by close to 2,000 trucks rambling through New York’s streets each week, plus the 62,427 abandoned tires and 3,955 derelict vehicles the department picks up each year.
And the Christmas trees. Don’t forget the 122,235 Christmas trees the department sent to the chipper in January.
But this part was my favorite—the highlight, if you will, of my Saturday night: “In [fiscal year] 2010, the Department impounded 114 vehicles, and issued 219 violations for the theft of recyclables and recovered 43 tons of recyclable metal and paper.”
Rest assured, fair New Yorkers, knowing that your recyclables are safe from the hands of the criminally insane. The war on recycling crime is on, people.
Of course, all cheekiness aside, the real story behind these numbers is that waste collection in New York City is a massive, and perhaps unnecessarily cumbersome, process. And that the primary reason for this is that there is simply so much waste out there.
Indeed, if there’s anything I learned from an afternoon of pulling food container after food container from the litter bins of the Lower East Side and lining them up on the sidewalk with Basurama, it’s just how much unnecessary garbage New York City has to offer—and how little it would take for me to reduce my own part of it with a few simple tweaks to my day-to-day habits.
After all, in fiscal year 2010 the DSNY Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling distributed approximately 1.4 million pieces of educational and promotional materials related to recycling, such as recycling-checklist flyers and stickers, bookmarks, coloring and comic books, brochures, and commercial-recycling handbooks, all in an effort to convince us to produce less waste.
And surely those materials had a very valuable message before they got tossed into the garbage with the junk mail.