Litter significantly depreciates the value of a home. So says research by advocacy groups like Keep America Beautiful. They report that there are economic, environmental and even social repercussions from trash on streets and sidewalks. But in the gold-rush town that is contemporary Brooklyn, all bets are off.
In Greenpoint, the long-grubby Brooklyn neighborhood of working-class family homes and industrial workshops, there have historically been few street-corner trashcans and persistent heaps of commercial trash dumped on quiet blocks. And yet the sale price per square foot there rose from $539 in 2011 to $914 in 2014.
The influx of new New Yorkers driving prices up all over the city, of course, produces more trash. Services and infrastructure that existed before prove inadequate. But in Greenpoint, for which a zoning map looks like a Tetris board of commercial, residential, and public spaces, handling that new level of trash has proven particularly difficult.
According to data from the city, Greenpoint and Williamsburg (Community Board 1) compare somewhat poorly to other neighborhoods in the borough when it comes to the cleanliness of their streets and sidewalks. North Brooklyn’s streets are also less clean than they were two years ago.
Add to that the fact that an estimated 7,000 tons of the city’s garbage is trucked to North Brooklyn every single day, and you have an exceedingly complicated neighborhood challenge. What to do?
That’s what Caroline Bauer and Alan Minor, two urban planners transplanted from Kansas and Alabama, did. After a chance meeting in a bar in 2012, they put into motion Curb Your Litter, a beautification and litter research project.
Minor and Bauer speculated that a great deal of the garbage on the streets must stem from the lack of public trashcans. Trashcans are generally designated only for commercial streets, not residential or industrial, Bauer explained. So, they aimed to buy used fifty-gallon oil drums, draft local artists to paint them, and set them up along the neighborhood’s main pedestrian thoroughfares.
They discovered that their plan was illegal – the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) must approve all public trashcans. And so began a long, political, and intricate collaboration between the city, the state, and local community groups, businesses, schools and residents. That collaboration caused the project to evolve from a few trashcans into community trash plans and research on the sources, composition, and even educational uses of litter.
Thank You ExxonMobil
As fate would have it, Greenpoint is built on some of the most toxic land in the country, the site of a fossil fuel spill as much as three times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster. Finally discovered in 1978, the Greenpoint Oil Spill released 17 to 30 million gallons of oil and petroleum products over several decades into the area around Newtown Creek.
Much of the oil came from refineries which would eventually be owned by ExxonMobil. A legal settlement between the oil company and the State of New York created the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, a money pot designated for neighborhood environmental projects. Money to make an officially-sanctioned impact, in other words, is there.
But getting it is hard, as getting any money through the labyrinthine system that is New York government is hard. Bauer and Minor asked the Greenpoint Chamber of Commerce (whose Treasurer is Exxon’s man for their remediation obligations) to partner with them on a grant application to the Environmental Fund. They also asked a sustainability consulting group named Closed Loops to conduct a study. And they called on local non-profits and schools for help.
By the time hundreds of residents, businesses, and all the other pieces were in place and the funding was approved, it was the end of 2014.
Time For Action
Beginning in March, the project took to the streets, hosting four public litter collection events in which over 200 neighborhood residents participated. DSNY approved the new trashcans with the understanding that the Chamber of Commerce maintains them over time, a collaboration that Elaine Brodsky, chairwoman of the Chamber, calls “an additional win for us” since the collaboration will continue “long after Curb Your Litter comes to an official end.”
A big part of Curb Your Litter focuses on education. Students at Frances Perkins Academy, for example, are participating in a class taught by the Center for Urban Pedagogy that will culminate in a documentary film about our collective trash’s ultimate destination.
And the initiative builds on other community efforts, such as the Clean Greenpoint Pledge in which area businesses promise to help maintain clean streets. The Pledge campaign was launched in 2013 by local City Council Member Steve Levin and the Chamber.
So Where Does Our Litter Come From?
Closed Loops has begun a scouring analysis of the what, where, who, when, and how of Greenpoint’s litter.
Is the litter from individuals who don’t have a public trashcan immediately at hand? Is it from families dumping their trash because their housing situations make that the easiest option? Is it from large bags overstuffed and splitting open; renters taking trash curbside days before pickup; collectors of cans and bottles ripping open bags for their bounty and leaving what’s left to spill onto the street?
And what about the thousands of trucks that deliver a third of the city’s residential and commercial trash to North Brooklyn, home to the city’s largest concentration of waste transfer stations, every single day?
The official results will be issued later this month, though it seems there may be a lack of consensus about the litter’s origins. Preliminary findings indicate a great deal of the neighborhood’s litter is the menus and newspaper coupons dumped on front stoops. Bauer notes that the trash trucks are covered and does not credit them with any significant contribution to the problem.
In a story we ran in October of 2014, however, environmental justice advocates talked to us about the connection between local waste management operations and Greenpoint’s litter problem. They cited issues like leaking and improperly covered garbage trucks used by private carters. The waste management industry is well-established in North Brooklyn, and it may be that any contribution they make to the problem is one to be examined further down the line.
Changing Patterns of Behavior
Curb Your Litter’s preliminary findings also indicate that modeled behavior plays a big part in litter. If a trashcan is overflowing and that first person sets his coffee cup on the ground next to it, the next passerby with trash seems to feel freer to set her cup alongside it, and the pile grows from there. Bauer suspects that the ultimate culprit will prove to be inadequate collecting capacity.
“The sheer density of people here increases the amount of detritus in the streets,” she said. “We consume so much and generate so much litter that even if the streets were very clean, people would still litter. We need more trash cans and more trash pickup.”
And what about the psychology of littering, the social or mental mechanism that leads people to drop junk on the streets and keep moving? “I think values shift when there’s this idea that you’re sort of anonymous,” Bauer said, “and nobody’s going to see you littering. And they shift when other people have done it, too.”
Which begs the question: Are values really values when they disappear so quickly?
But that’s a study for another day.