The cost of cleaning litter from the streets of New York City is equal to the gross domestic income of a small nation. The city recovers at least a portion of that cost through its ever-increasing fines for littering. Though it seems rare to hear of anyone being cited for dropping an unwanted flyer or cigarette butt on the streets, litter-related fining is a multi-million dollar source of income for the city.
According to the City Council, the city collected a combined $16.2 million in fiscal year 2006 for dirty sidewalks and curbs. However, the city might see a dent in this figure as new legislation on the hours residents can be fined takes effect.
The Department of Sanitation can fine residents $50 to $250 for litter on their property or on the sidewalk in front of their residence, up to 18 inches from the curb. Citations can be issued between 8 and 9 a.m. and from noon to 1 p.m. But many residents have complained that they are not home to check for litter before the mid-day deadline. City Councilman Simcha Felder introduced a new litter bill this summer, which says violations can only be written between 8 and 9 a.m. and 6 and 7 p.m.
The Department of Sanitation also continues to step up its monitoring and enforcement of anti-litter laws. Its newest addition to the litter patrol is a Street Condition Observation Unit, or SCOUT. The unit is made up of 15 staffers in three-wheeled scooters who will visit every city street each month, recording and reporting on litter, illegal dumping and overflowing litter baskets, along with other problems such as fallen trees, damaged bus stops, and potholes. The SCOUT patrollers cannot issue violations, but they are equipped with GPS devices to send the locations of trouble areas to the Department of Sanitation. The new unit has begun to make its rounds.
The city has also made some recent creative attempts to tackle another major source of litter in New York: public trash bins whose overflowing garbage blows across city streets.
Last year, the Department of Sanitation tested a high-tech trashcan called the Big Belly. The Big Belly is a solar-powered, compacting trashcan that can hold from 4 to 10 times the amount of a normal public bin. The company that produces the compactor, Seahorse Power, says that, in addition to less overflow and less frequent emptying, Big Bellies mean less odor and fewer rats. But at around $4000 each, rather than the $100 price tag on a typical city can, the Big Belly has not yet caught on. Another problem was that people didn’t recognize the olive-colored contraptions, which look more like mailboxes than trashcans.
A more recent attempt to reduce the overflowing waste in public bins is a crackdown on monitoring and an increase in fines for residents who illegally use the street bins to dump personal trash. According to the New York Post, 2,515 people were cited between July 2006 and June 2007 for illegal dumping in public bins.
In mid-August, City Council passed a bill to quadruple the fines for dumping personal garbage into public bins. For repeat offenders, it could cost as much as $400 to drop a bag of trash in the bin on the corner. The bill also gives sanitation workers permission to look through trash for items like mail that can identify the violator.
The good news, according to the Mayor’s Office of Operations’ Scorecard rating system, New York City streets are cleaner than they’ve been since at least 1975, when the system was implemented. In the Scorecard system, raters go out monthly, unannounced, to examine and report on the cleanliness of city streets and sidewalks. They compare what they see with stock photographs—available on the Mayor’s Office Web site—and issue a score on a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being the cleanest. A 1.5 is considered acceptably clean.
Street cleanliness has risen since it reached an all-time low of 53 percent acceptably clean in 1980. In the most recent rating, New York streets were given an all-time high score with 94.3 percent acceptably clean.
“There’s certainly been a positive trend in the last few years,” says Tony Longo, Associate Director for the Mayor’s Office of Operations. Longo refused to discuss why the streets are getting cleaner, claiming, “Interpretation is not really what we’re after. We’re really just about numbers.” But he said he feels confident that the upward trend will continue.