just asking questions

Can Jessica Tisch Make New York City Less Disgusting?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

New York City has been filthy for a very long time. The city’s garbage problem can seem intractable; NYC has lagged well behind other metropolises on important measures like recycling rates and containerization, as well as the omnipresence of trash on its streets. And while the city faces unique challenges in disposing of wastes, sclerotic bureaucracy and a lack of political will are the central roadblocks to change. This has held true even when well-respected leaders like Kathryn Garcia have led the Sanitation Department.

But Eric Adams, the man who defeated Garcia for the mayoralty two years ago, seems himself to have a special interest in cleanliness, which goes beyond an obsession with rats. And his Sanitation commissioner, Jessica Tisch, a veteran of city agencies and scion of an influential New York family, has been given free rein to experiment. She has already instituted visible changes like new guidelines for when residents can set out their garbage. She has also, unusually for an agency head, become something of a social-media personality. I spoke with her about why New York City is so uniquely gross — and her plans to de-grossify it.

I want to read you a quote from a Streetsblog article that came out in March of last year: “In conversations with policy experts, architects, elected officials, and former city workers, one word came up repeatedly to describe the city’s relationship with garbage — inertia. The greatest and richest city in the world is being embarrassed by other municipalities when it comes to nearly every facet of how we generate, sort, store, and recycle more than 12,000 tons of waste every day.” 

You were hired a month after that article came out. Did you feel that inertia when you got to the job, and to what extent has it had an impact on what you’ve tried to do so far?
I absolutely felt that inertia, and overcoming that inertia has actually brought a lot of the energy to this department over the past year, because we want to do everything we can to change the paradigm in New York City. I have long said that for the past decade or two, most cities around the world have really innovated in the ways that they handle and manage their waste. And New York City really hasn’t. So in a short period of time, we are trying to basically play catch-up.

One thing that’s historically been an issue is a lack of interaction between city agencies like the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Transportation. Before this job, you ran the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Did that experience help you in terms of setting up better coordination with Sanitation?
When Mayor Adams came in, he was very clear with all of us that he wanted to take a one-city approach. What I have seen and felt over the past year that I’ve been working in this administration is a very different paradigm vis-à-vis how agencies work together. And I’ll give you a few examples.

There were certain parts of the city that really look and feel like city streets but technically aren’t considered city streets: medians, greenways, the service roads next to highways, underpasses, overpasses. But there was this old agreement dating back several decades that took the jurisdiction for cleaning those parts of the city away from the Department of Sanitation and gave them to other agencies that weren’t positioned to clean them. And Mayor Adams came in and basically tore off that old bureaucratic agreement and said, “No, we need to give jurisdiction and responsibility for cleaning these areas to the agency whose core competency is cleaning.” And I felt a lot of support and partnership from, for example, the Department of Transportation, the Parks Department, in helping us ramp up and in transitioning that responsibility over.

More recently, the department got jurisdiction to clean the highways, which in my opinion were absolutely filthy. For the past month and a half, we’ve had about a hundred sanitation workers a day out there doing a full makeover. And that too was an interagency effort. The Department of Transportation has been incredibly helpful in getting us started up, both in terms of the equipment we use and helping us with routing. So I think you’re seeing Mayor Adams’s one-city approach in action.

How do you measure progress on stuff like this? We’re obviously talking about an enormous area and tons of workers. Do you have stats for garbage the way CompStat tracks crime?
Oh, I love that you just asked that question. My background is at the NYPD. I spent 12 years there, and then two years during the pandemic running the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. When I showed up at Sanitation, one of the things that I wanted to do was really define metrics for success and have this be a much more data-driven operation than it has been historically. And so about two or three months ago, we created our own CompStat at the Department of Sanitation. It’s called TrashDash.

And it is very much modeled after CompStat. What we do is we take, for example, 311 complaints about miscollections or dirty conditions and we look at the numbers citywide, by borough and by district — week-to-date, the 28-day period, year-to-date. We publish it every Monday morning at 11 a.m., just like they do with CompStat at the NYPD. And every week on Thursdays, we bring a different borough in and the executives here grill each borough on their stats. Some of the stats are customer-related — what are our customers telling us? And other stats are workforce efficiency. So, yes, we have definitely become a much more data-driven organization, and we’re using data, different sources of data, to inform how we think about our performance. But in sanitation, some of it is very qualitative. We have great before-and-after pictures that I see every day as they’re cleaning the highways. They recently finished the BQE, as an example. And with some of those things, a picture really says a thousand words.

Though I was in a cab to JFK the other day and noticed lots of trash in green spaces and everywhere else along the route.
Yeah. And we’re doing both. We’re doing the street sweeping on the roads, but we also have several teams a day doing litter-picking in those green spaces. I think you were probably driving on the Nassau Expressway. We have teams there for the next several weeks now that we’ve finished the BQE and the Major Deegan and a few others. That’s an example of a place where people who come and visit New York City from out of town and fly into JFK — it’s their first impression of the city.

It’s bad. First JFK itself, which is slowly getting better, and then —
It’s got to look as good as New Yorkers do.

There are also so many in-between spaces in the city — areas that may border multiple buildings, but it’s not always clear whose responsibility they are. And that seems to be where trash piles up the most. 
It is the city’s responsibility to clean the parts of the city that the city owns: the streets, the overpasses, the underpasses, the highways, the greenways. And I think what you’ve seen from this administration is the mayor has really invested in doing just that, and the Department of Sanitation is stepping up to the plate and getting it done. But cleanliness in New York City is a shared responsibility. The Department of Sanitation has 10,000 employees and we clean a lot of different spaces. The sidewalks happen to be the responsibility of the property owners. So property owners are responsible for keeping the sidewalks cleaned.

I was going to get to that. If you visit London or Tokyo or any other big, wealthy city, it’s always so much cleaner than here. It’s actually difficult to find a trash can in London, yet there’s almost no litter around, at least in my experience. And I don’t think that’s solely because of municipal policy. I think it’s a cultural thing, and I’m not sure how you change that.
We have a number of different strategies. One example is that for the first time in 20 years, the department launched an anti-littering public awareness campaign. When I was growing up, there were anti-littering campaigns — it was what was taught. The conversation just sort of dropped off here in New York City. So we did pretty provocative campaigns, speaking to New Yorkers on their level around littering.

But the other thing that had really fallen by the wayside over at least the last ten years was enforcement related to cleanliness conditions. And I don’t believe in enforcement for the sake of enforcement, but I do believe in enforcement for the sake of just holding New Yorkers to account for meeting the very basic cleanliness rules and standards that we have. So things like failure to clean in front of your property, early set-out of trash — the basic bread-and-butter cleanliness rules.

Our enforcement is up 73 percent year-to-date. We’re at just over 215,000 summonses for cleanliness, versus 124,000 the year prior. So we are definitely focusing on enforcement of the basic rules and standards around cleanliness. But we’re also significantly changing the paradigm for how we manage trash in New York City. And there I’m talking both about the rules around how businesses and residences can set their trash out on the curb and also when we come and collect it.

Right, the department moved the earliest time you can take out your trash as a resident from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. What kind of difference has that made?
Just to clarify a little bit, the new rules say no black bags on the curb in New York City before 8 p.m. If you’re a resident and you want to set your trash out earlier, you can do so at 6 p.m., but it’s got to be in a container.

And on the commercial side, again, the rule is no black bags on the curb before 8 p.m., but if you want to continue to set your trash out an hour before closing — let’s say you closed before 8 — you can do so. But it’s got to be in a container with a lid. There were a number of things driving this rule change, among them the look and feel of the streets. Who really wants to see that? Who wants to play a game of hopscotch around those piles of black bags? When New Yorkers are using the streets the most — when they’re taking their kids to school in the morning or when they’re coming home from work at night — the trash was always there and it was omnipresent. So I would say the first driving force behind it was that, but also the rat complaints.

Which Adams has made a major plank of his mayoralty.
Absolutely. The odors, especially in the summer, were gross. So we changed the rules for when New Yorkers can set out the trash, but we also changed the way we do business at the Department of Sanitation. We’re collecting so much more trash earlier, and we’re faster, so it spends so much less time sitting at the curb.

We’ve shifted about a third of our collection to the midnight shift in high-density areas, instead of the 6 a.m. shift. We are now starting our morning shift earlier, and we completely did away with a collection shift that started at 4 p.m. the next day. In the old world, 20 percent of our trash was scheduled to sit out on the curb for 24 hours before we even came to get it. And in New York City, there are 44 million pounds of trash and recycling left on the curb every single day, 24 million pounds from residences and 20 million pounds from businesses. So this paradigm was ripe for changing.

You asked how we can judge the difference this makes. Well, a really early indication is the rat-complaint numbers. In May and June — in May, they were down 15 percent compared to the previous May, and in June they were down something like 25 percent compared to June of 2022. And we’re also down so far in July. We’ve not seen these annual numbers go down in a long time. And the new trash rules went into effect on April 1. So seeing these early wins — in May, June, and hopefully more to come in July — is a nice indication that something is really happening here.

But we’re still putting trash bags out on the street — just for fewer hours. Many other cities have adopted broad containerization over the years. The Adams administration has release a rule mandating that all food-related businesses put their trash in containers — and I know there’s a pilot program going on for residents in one Hell’s Kitchen block — but what’s the timeline for making that change for the whole city?
A few things on that. First, we started seeing a much greater level of container or bin usage in New York City after the new set-out times went into effect on April 1. Those times highly incentivized the use of containers by allowing you to set the trash out a little earlier if you use a container both on the commercial side and the residential side. On top of that, on the commercial side, we’ve recently added a new rule, taking effect at the end of this month, that will require all food-related businesses — so restaurants, bodegas, and delis, as examples — to set out their trash in containers.

That’s about 40,000 businesses, 20 percent of all businesses citywide. Right on its heels, we recently announced a rule that will require all chain stores in New York City to set out their trash in containers, which we’re going through the rulemaking process for. And that’s another 5 percent of businesses on top of the 20 percent of food-related businesses. Let’s say those two rules together will cover about a quarter of all businesses, but include the businesses that  produce the most food-related waste. And chain stores tend to produce higher volumes of waste, too.

And if you look at our report that we published in April, we explain that we are looking to containerize waste in New York City. So the restaurant rule and the chain-store rule are certainly not the end of the container mandates, but I think when you’re going to make such a large change, you have to do it methodically and thoughtfully.

It would be the biggest change since the city mandated plastic bags.
On the residential side, which happens to be the main topic of this 100-page report that we put out on containerization, we are piloting shared containers in the fall. Rolling out shared containers like they have in many European cities — Barcelona is a prime example — is certainly not an overnight thing, but it is something that we are committed to doing. So we started out by studying it, studying best practices around the world, in other major cities in Europe and Asia and South America. But we also did the analysis to see whether we even have the space for these containers. And the answer is that on 89 percent of New York City residential streets, we can containerize trash. For the low- and mid-density areas, we would do that through individual bins. And for the mid- to high-density areas, we would do it through shared containers. But there is a viable containerization solution for 89 percent of New York City streets.

Now, there are a lot of complexities to doing this. Among them, New York City doesn’t have alleyways like they do in Chicago, and curbside space is at a total premium. So how many parking spaces would we have to take up to use with shared containers? And there’s the frequency of collection in New York City: We collect trash two, sometimes three times a week in certain parts of the city. In areas that have rolled out shared containers, they collect trash every day and in some parts of the world twice a day. So how big do those containers actually have to be?

And then there’s this fleet issue: We have rear-loading trucks, meaning our collection trucks, the sanitation worker picks up the bag and throws it in the back of the truck. So to do collections of a shared container, we have to overhaul our entire fleet — which doesn’t scare me, we’ve done bigger things — but the truck that is right for that type of work, that is needed in a dense urban environment, doesn’t exist in the United States. They exist in Europe.

That doesn’t speak well to trash collection in America, I suppose.
No, but I also think that New York City can be a leader here in the U.S. So we are developing this truck now —

The city is developing it?
Well, the city is working with the manufacturer, or with the truck manufacturing industry, to develop that truck. We are looking at what they have in Europe, and we’re making one that meets federal standards in the United States. In the meantime, we’re doing a pilot starting in the fall in West Harlem where we use a truck that has a tipper on the back of it. We put the tippers on the backs of the trucks, and we’re using containers that have wheels on them so that we can wheel the container to the back of the truck and tip it in. Obviously when we go to full build-out of shared containers, we won’t be able to have hundreds of thousands of containers on wheels. That would be a safety problem. So we’re developing a truck now that can hoist the fixed containers that don’t have wheels.

During the last administration, after COVID blew a hole in the city’s finances, former Mayor de Blasio enacted drastic budget cuts to the Sanitation Department. I know you have cited that as one reason why sanitation conditions worsened in 2020 and 2021, but Mayor Adams also proposed cuts to the department’s budget this year. Do you feel like you have all the support from this administration that you need to get all this stuff done?
This mayor has invested in cleaning up New York City. You referenced the budget cuts during the pandemic, which definitely made an overnight difference in the way the city looked and felt when they went into effect. The litter baskets were overflowing, the curb lines were filthy because the litter baskets weren’t being emptied nearly frequently enough, and the curb lines weren’t being swept. That’s what those budget cuts meant. Mayor Adams has not only restored service levels, he’s running them at the highest this city has ever seen. We are emptying the litter baskets more than we ever have in the past. We are sweeping the streets more than the city ever has in the past.

One of the other major programs in the pipeline is composting. How confident are you that New Yorkers are going to do that when it becomes mandatory? And how might it conflict with the directive to reduce vermin around the city, given that there’s going to be all this food out there on the street?
Curbside composting is one of the best rat-mitigation strategies a city can roll out, in my opinion, because it is all containerized. So we do look at curbside composting as a rat-fighting initiative, just to be clear.

When I took this job, Mayor Adams told me that he was committed to rolling curbside composting out in New York City and ending this 10-, 15-years psychodrama around “We’re starting composting, and now we’re stopping composting.” He wanted a program that was here to stay, but he had two requirements for me. It had to be a program that was effective, meaning that people actually use it, and it had to be cost-effective. So we went to work for two months designing this program of the future, and we piloted it last fall in the entire borough of Queens. And the results were extraordinary.

On average, we collected three times the material per district than any previous curbside-composting program the city had run over the past ten years. And we did it at a third of the cost of previous programs. I think there were a few things that drove the program’s effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. On the effectiveness side, meaning how much we were actually collecting, we didn’t speak at New Yorkers, we spoke to them.

How so?
Our marketing campaign for this program was talking to them about things that matter — for example, rats. We didn’t talk to them about methane. And we made the service simple and easy to use. So no need to sign up, no need to opt in, no need to order a specific type of bin. Set your compost out on recycling day, give us anything from your kitchen, and anything from your garden, and we’ll pick it up. Easy, simple, clear messaging. And guess what? New Yorkers used it. We collected 13 million pounds of organic material in three months, and those were the first three months of the program.

And now the mayor has said that we are rolling it out on a borough-by-borough schedule. Brooklyn starts in the fall. Staten Island and the Bronx will be the spring of ’24, and Manhattan will be in the fall of ’24. In the meantime, we’ve rolled out smart composting bins, 400 of them in every borough, that New Yorkers can access 24 hours a day.

What does a cleaner city mean to you? Because for me, the cleanliness of the city feels like a real quality-of-life thing, but I don’t think everyone necessarily agrees with that.
I think everyone deserves the dignity of a clean community. And I grew up in New York City. I am raising my kids in New York City. New York City is the greatest city in the world, and it also needs to be the cleanest city in the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can Jessica Tisch Make New York City Less Disgusting?