Garbage In, Garbage Out: The MTA’s Questionable Garbage Can Gambit

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Photo: robby-T's flickr

The MTA's experiment in reducing subway trash, in which all garbage cans have been removed from the 8th Street and Broadway stop in Greenwich Village and the Main Street station in Queens, has a way of firing up one's inner Malcolm Gladwell. Sure, on the surface, it seems unwise to trust New Yorkers not to just throw their litter on the ground, especially when so many take that route already when there are garbage cans everywhere ... and, oh my God, did you really just toss that McDonald's wrapper on the ground and walk away?

But maybe it's one of those Freakonomics counterintuitive mind-benders, like building more highways produces more traffic, not less. Clearly, the MTA must be basing the new program on some sort of behavioral psychology–urban studies ninja methodology.

Or not.

When asked the logic behind the plan, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz cited similar subway trash-can removals in London and Washington, D.C. But as it turns out, those decisions were made because of security concerns, after an IRA bombing in Britain and the 9/11 attacks, respectively.

Well then, maybe banning trash cans in London and Washington had the unexpected side effect of producing rubbish- and garbage-free, sparkly clean subway stations?

Actually, the opposite happened. Washington was forced to bring garbage cans back in 2005 after the Metro became noticeably filthier, and London's mayor resurrected trash receptacles this year in order to clean up the city for the 2012 Olympics.

The MTA also cited the PATH train system, which has been binless for securities reasons since 9/11, with a PATH spokesman quoted as saying that "it seems there is less trash" since the switch — just the kind of stats-driven, quantitative evidence that we should be using to make such decisions.

Pressed on why the MTA thinks the bin ban might just work, Ortiz described the program as "just one small piece of a strategy in the multi-pronged trash-reduction plan," which includes two additional daily runs of the trash-collecting trains. Until then, the city would would really appreciate it if refuse-producing New Yorkers could pack out their newspapers and empty coffee cups, like conscientious backcountry hikers. What could go wrong?