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New York State of Mind


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September 15, 2012 by Paul van der Werf

New York State of Mind

It is a heaving metropolis that at first glance should not be able to work.

It smells likely horse droppings and urine the closer you get to the Park evoking what it must have really smelled like during the Gangs of New York took era.

It is crowded and in many places not sleek. It is undoubtedly gritty and through this workably utilitarian. It is raw.

On this hot summer week when if at home we would be inclined to search out the coolness of a basement we instead are met by stifling and stinky subway stations. There are rats here, mostly hidden, but scaring the odd child here and there. Yet the trains run more or less as they are meant to and the people get on with it.

In terms of waste management there is not the luxury of space for many front end or roll off bins. In many places waste is dragged out of shops and businesses to the curb and parking lanes each evening. These are not a few trifling bags but big piles. Early in the morning garbage trucks are seen backing down one way streets, spotters holding back car traffic, to get at what are now fetid piles that have been picked at by rodents and in some cases people.

The piles are everywhere. Time Square’s swaggering cacophony is temporarily abated in morning’s early glow and replaced by these heaping piles of waste and street sweepers armed with fountain strength hoses shooting water out of elephant trunks.

As quickly as it was placed there it is gone. The legion of trucks finish their job before the real craziness of the day sets in and its removal would be an impossibility.

Despite what it sounds like the place is not falling apart. It works.

The limos still run their course dropping off their VIPs wherever they may need to be. The vacuous Kim Kardashian still has time to show up at Lord and Taylors for a Fashion Week kickoff event smelling fine (she was hocking perfume). The tourists still walk around, maps in hand, necks craning to see the tops of buildings, or the hint of someone famous like some visitor to Banff hoping to see an elk.

It works because people operate within the context they are given and have the motivation to effect their desired end.

For instance there are a legion of pickers around the city. They are everywhere tearing at garbage bags and going through garbage containers and recycling bins, in parks, streets, anywhere really, in search of beverage containers-mostly aluminum cans and plastic bottles. They amble about with shopping carts, like so many Santa Clauses with heaping bags, pushing their cargo from mine to mine and then grabbing and filling. Eventually they push their now heaping cart to the trading post where it is exchanged for some living money.

It is the difference between something and nothing.

They reminded me of the textile scavengers I used to see when visiting my grandmother in Amsterdam back in the 1970s.

Good for them. It can’t be an ideal life. But it has to be something.

My week away reminded me that we need to design waste management programs on how people live and not on how we want them to live. For instance we spend a lot of time trying to socially engineer waste diversion- for instance applying single family methodologies on everyone else and wondering why it doesn’t work. It is like trying to force a square peg through a scalene triangle. It is just not the right angle.

In New York anyway businesses place their garbage on the street at the end of the day and at every opportunity recyclables are scavenged by the motivated. Any value from both of these streams is extracted and not source separated.

We have to better tap into how something works naturally than spend so much time on social engineering to get people to change their behaviours to conform to some new norm that we think might work for them. It occurs to me that in our context this is especially true for commercial and multi-residential garbage. It occurs to me that nobody much cares. It is at lowest point of their priority list. They just want it gone. We need to challenge ourselves to extract any value or diversion after that point.

Paul van der Werf

paulv@2cg.ca

www.2cg.ca


Paul van der Werf

Paul van der Werf

Paul van der Werf is President of London-Ontario-based 2cg Inc. and has been involved in the business of waste prevention and diversion for the last 20 years. A recognized organic waste and composting expert he has in recent years delved into the business of recycling and sustainability planning. A contributing editor, he writes the popular Organics Matters column for the magazine.
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