New York City

‘In Trash City, managing garbage is having its moment.’

Everybody’s talking trash in New York City, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

Right now, garbage bags can be thrown to the curb as early as 4 p.m. – uniquely early among comparable cities across the country and the world.

Right now, garbage bags can be thrown to the curb as early as 4 p.m. – uniquely early among comparable cities across the country and the world. Jeff Coltin

New York City Mayor/rat-murderer-in-chief Eric Adams is trying a new approach to managing the stubborn rodent problem on city streets. 

Adams, along with city Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch, announced a proposed rule change on Monday that would require residential buildings to put their trash bags out on the curb no earlier than 8 p.m., shortening the amount of time that the city’s apparently soaring – or just increasingly bold – rat population has to feast on the mountains of garbage spilling out onto sidewalks and streets. Right now, garbage bags can be thrown to the curb as early as 4 p.m. – uniquely early among comparable cities across the country and the world, the trash experts say. There would be some options though – if trash is placed in a secure container, it could go out as early as 6 p.m. Plus, residential buildings of nine or more units can opt in to a morning window of 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. to put out their garbage instead.

The move on its face seems like a marginal change that simply reduces the rats’ dinner time to a feeding frenzy, rather than a leisurely meal. But it was described by Tisch as a “big swing” and by New York City Council Member Shaun Abreu as a “monumental victory.” Tisch said that the proposed rule change, which would push back when trash can be placed on the curb, is being combined with increased trash pickups at the midnight hour, rather than at the 6 a.m. hour. Roughly 25% of overall collection is now happening on the midnight shift, Tisch said, meaning that some portion of the city’s trash will now only be sitting out for rats to binge on and pedestrians to trip over for four hours, rather than 14. The proposed rule change is the result of months of negotiations with unions including 32BJ SEIU, which represents building service workers and would take effect in April following a public comment period and public hearing. 

The rule change aims to reduce the amount of time that overflowing, sometimes 6-foot-high piles of garbage bags spill out from the curb to sidewalks and streets, taking up valuable walking, dining and street space. But make no mistake: the move is also about declaring open season on rats. “I hate rats,” Adams said on Monday. “Fighting crime, fighting inequality, fighting rats is something that we are focused on as we continue to make this city a livable city.”

To hear Adams mention rodent control alongside a list of priorities that includes inequality and crime – arguably his top focus – begs an essential question: Is trash having a moment in New York City? 

“Trash is a very sexy topic,” said Abreu, who spoke in support of the proposed rule change on Monday. “Rats, rats, rats. That's what we're hearing. That's what we're hearing at our constituent offices, I'm hearing it on the streets. We get emails about it.”

What makes trash so sexy? Could it be that the Department of Sanitation is grabbing attention with its irreverent TikTok videos? Perhaps frustration with the city’s decadeslong failure to implement obvious solutions like containerization has reached a boiling point. Or maybe New Yorkers are just eager to have a common enemy in the city’s fattened rats to unite against. 

“I think all New Yorkers agree that during the pandemic, the city got meaningfully dirtier, and New Yorkers want to see it cleaned up,” Tisch told City & State. “I think that the message that we're sending around cleanliness and putting cleanliness back front and center in the Department of Sanitation is resonating with people.”

Adams has been trash talking the scourge of rats for years now – including with his memorable 2019 proposal to lure rodents in traps consisting of a lethal alcohol bath. (Rats, it turns out, are simply popping out babies too quickly for that short-lived rat trap pilot to have made any dent.) But while Adams elevated the issue as Brooklyn borough president, former Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia brought the issue of clean curbs to the forefront last year during the Democratic mayoral primary. Garcia, whose late surging campaign came in second to Adams, ran on her record of running one of the city’s largest agencies. A “paramilitary force” of uniformed workers, as she memorably put it. 

“I'd like to think that Kathryn and the campaign she ran had a lot to do with it,” said Annika Reno, former press secretary on the Garcia mayoral campaign, when asked whether trash is having a moment in New York City. “I think she was one of the only candidates to put out a ‘clean curbs’ plan, and she made the return of curbside organics a priority. All of these kind of niche issues that I think New Yorkers care a lot about, but other candidates were sidelining or not even paying attention to really.”

Trash management has been a hot topic for both the Adams administration and the City Council this year, with the fate of the city’s long-planned expansion of curbside composting emerging as an early sticking point in budget talks this year. Despite some pushback from the council, the planned expansion was scrapped by the Adams administration in the budget. The administration has implemented a new voluntary organics composting pilot in Queens that doesn’t require opt-in and aims to remove barriers to participation.

The city has also launched a pilot for containerization of trash in Times Square and is on track to expand that pilot to the rest of the boroughs by the end of the year. The city is paying consulting firm McKinsey & Co. for a 20-week study on what it would take to implement containerization citywide. The sanitation department has also expanded its collection efforts to include holiday weekends and more overnight pickups.

The council, which shares the administration’s goal of cleaning up curbs and battling the city’s emboldened rodent population, has its own proposals in the works. The City Council’s “Rat Action Plan” includes bills that would identify rat infestation zones and put to use $4.8 million earmarked in the city budget for rat mitigation. A separate bill in the council’s “Zero Waste” package would mandate curbside composting collection citywide. 

Council Member Sandy Nurse, who chairs the council’s sanitation committee, called the announcement from Adams on Monday “a good start” and agreed that efforts at trash and rodent control are moving to the forefront in New York. “New Yorkers have made it very clear that rats and trash is a major concern for them,” Nurse told City & State. “They're tired of walking out of their house, they're tired of walking on the streets, seeing rats running over their ankles. Everyone is tired of looking at these bags at night on the street, the mounds of trash.”

At Monday’s press conference outside City Hall, where a sanitation department garbage truck served as a backdrop, Adams noted that the press corps was showing a keen interest in trash too. “What I’m surprised about, No. 1, is the number of cameras (here). That tells me that all of you are scared of rats too. And the number of questions you asked,” Adams told reporters. “This is front and center in all of our minds, and we are approaching it head-on.”