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November 7, 2017

There’s trash piling up on every street corner of New York

..and why that’s kind of a good thing

I knew that New York would take my breath away, not in the same way LA did, with smog, but with its breathtaking views and epic art and design culture. I was wrong, not entirely, those things were breathtaking, but it was the piles of trash on the streets that really took my breath away! It is piled high. It smells. And it is collected daily. That’s right, daily.

We have benefited hugely from the War on Waste TV show highlighting Australia’s waste problem and sparking people into action, it’s been great to see so much affirmative action from so manny people, and obviously I hate waste right?! So why am I so glad to see New York’s trash piling up on their sidewalk? It’s simple. Those big bulging bags of trash on the side of the road keep rubbish visible. There’s something kind of honest about it. New Yorkers don’t need a TV show to tell them how much waste they produce. Their waste is on show, every day, it can be seen, smelt (ew it really smelled bad too!) and it can even be heard when the local rodents start rummaging through looking for their next meal. That’s why I liked it. It’s visible.

New York is a big city, about 8.5 million people live there (that’s almost 8 times as many people as Adelaide!) so of course there is more rubbish to deal with - 8 times more to be exact. But it’s more than that. The disposable culture in America is significant, and their trash problem is compounded by rigid systems that have removed reusable options from the equation. For context, I carried my usual reusable kit with me while I travelled, but on any given day I would have to walk in (and out) of 4 coffee shops before finding one that would allow me to use my own cup. Their concern wasn’t about cleanliness or cross contamination or sizing discrepancies, it’s just their way of doing things, and their preference is for disposable cups. It’s what works for their business models, their equipment setup and their staff. To break from this pre-existing structure and routine posed a problem for 4 out of 5 cafes, and finding that one that would let me use my own cup was like a beautiful golden brown mirage in caffeine addicted desert! The more frightening part of this is that disposable cups are so accepted by most New Yorkers. They dine in, they use disposables. They takeaway, they use disposables. It’s just the norm. A sad and unfortunate norm, but the norm none the less. 

In Australia we have a pretty big coffee culture. Of course part of that culture is also the disposable takeaway cup, but most cafes here offer a reusable for those dining in, and the more recent movement towards keep cups and other reusable mugs has sparked something of a revolution here. I really started to notice it more this year, and I reckon now on an average day I see about 1 in every 5 people using a reusable cup for their caffeine hit. I was in America for 17 days, and the whole time I was there I saw a grand total of 2 reusable cups. TWO. WTF?!

Talking to New Yorker’s about it really highlighted their awareness too. For all that trash, there is a huge awareness of what it means, why it’s there and what kind of flow on impact that has. The zero waste movement is alive and well, there are some great initiatives happening around the city, including the provision of public compost bins in addition to sorted recycling bins and landfill bins in some locations. New York is home to over 100 zero waste schools who are all committed to diverting their waste from landfill (more on this later), not to mention the designers and activists who live in the city and are also working hard to address the waste problem.

New York did take my breath away. And so did their trash. And I’m really glad on both fronts.

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