What Are the Ingredients for the Perfect Public Trash Bin?

New York City launches design competition to revamp litter receptacles.

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NYC's green wire mesh litter bins have served the Big Apple well for nearly a century. Long-overdue upgrades, however, are on the horizon. (Photo: DSNY)

Neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, block by block and building by building, the New York City that many long-time residents know and love is, in fact, vanishing.

Well, not entirely. But the old New York—weird, gritty, exhilarating, authentic—is a lot more difficult to find these days as beloved mom-and-pop businesses give way to banks and chain drugstores, and old-school neighborhood institutions are driven out by climbing rents.

Yet some things in New York City remain the same, seemingly immune to the flurry of change that has consumed large swaths of the city. And this includes public garbage cans—but not for long.

Numbering over 23,000 and sporting a design that’s remained largely unaltered since they were first introduced in the 1930s, the city’s lightweight green trash receptacles are on the verge of getting a makeover. Unlike many of the bemoan-worthy changes afoot in the Big Apple, however, new and improved streetside litter bins are likely to be embraced by a plurality New Yorkers.

It’s true that they will be fundamentally different-looking than the iconic wire mesh baskets that have been around almost as long as Katz's Delicatessen, Radio City Music Hall and the Coney Island Cyclone. They may seem foreign, out of place at first. But this is a change—a push for better, more accessible bins for folks to toss their trash while on-the-go—worth championing.

So, what exactly will New York’s new public trash bins look like? And how will they be an improvement over the ones that have been around for eons?

These particulars have yet to be revealed. But come spring 2019, New Yorkers will have the chance to find out what a public trash can specifically designed for New York City in the 21st century looks like and how it's a step up from the thousands of ubiquitous bins found across the five boroughs today.

Classic NYC public litter bin with umbrella
Sanitation workers would like some design elements of NYC's ubiquitous litter receptacles to remain. There's also room for significant improvement. (Photo: jskrybe/Flickr)

A Cleaner, More Convenient Can

Launched earlier this summer by the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and the Van Alen Institute in cooperation with the Industrial Designers Association of America and the American Institute of Architects New York, BetterBin is an open design competition seeking newfangled public rubbish bins for the Big Apple. (It’s also the inaugural competition in the Van Alen Institute’s Product Placed initiative, a series of design competitions geared to improve urban life.)

Inviting designers of all stripes and disciplines to "reimagine the iconic New York City litter basket," the BetterBin competition responds to the question: "How can we create a practical and efficient litter basket for New York City that reduces litter and better serves both sanitation workers and the public?"

"While residents and visitors may be familiar with the iconic green city litter basket, we are tasked with keeping the city healthy, safe and clean every day, and the current baskets do pose some challenges to us," says Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.

Mannequin legs poking out of NYC trash can
Mannequin legs poking out of NYC trash can. (Photo: Boss Tweed/flickr)

Three finalists will be announced this fall—each will receive $40,000 to develop a prototype design that will be implemented in a real-world trial run to be held next spring. Following the public testing period, the winning design will be announced in July 2019.

From there, the "winner will be eligible to contract for further design development to ensure the ability to mass-produce the basket at a reasonable cost, as well as refine technical issues through an agreement with the City," per a DSNY press release.

Participating designers, who have until Sept. 20 to submit their dream garbage can schemes, aren’t permitted to go completely buck-wild. The DSNY has established a set of criteria that must be met in order for submissions to advance in the competition. Essentially, the DSNY and Van Alen Institute have already identified all of the ingredients that make for the perfect NYC litter bin. It’s up to competition entrants to mix these ingredients together in an innovative yet practical way.

The first requirement is perhaps the most vital: the winning bin should be pleasing to the eye and promote cleaner city streets. Like the wire mesh bins currently in place, there should be a drainage element that allows fluids and rainwater to flow through and out of the receptacles.

"It helps a lot because when it's raining it doesn’t fill up with water," sanitation worker Keith Prucha told AM New York of the mesh deign at a DSNY open house held earlier this month in Manhattan. At the event, competition entrants were encouraged to mingle with sanitation workers to better understand how the city's public trash receptacles can be improved. "A basket that weighs 50 pounds, when it's raining, it can weigh upwards of 75 up to 100 pounds."

At the same time, the design, which must be minimum 40-gallon capacity, should be impervious to rodents. “The ideal design is simple and enduring, equally at home on any street in any borough, with the ability to stay relevant in a modern city alongside other sidewalk innovations for the next 100 years," reads the competition brief.

Secondly, a successful litter basket must be accessible to all New Yorkers of all mobility levels. That is, the cans are required to be fully ADA-compliant so that those with physical handicaps can toss their trash just as effortlessly as everyone else. Pedestrians should not have to physically touch the receptacle to place something inside of it. (And thank goodness for that.)

overflowing public trash bin in NYC
There are over 23,000 green wire mesh trash cans spread across New York City. They've changed only slightly since first introduced in the 1930s. (Photo: late pixel/Flickr)

Eco-Messaging, Ergonomics Are Key

Given that the DSNY aims to send zero waste to landfills by 2030, sustainability is a key component of what competition judges will be looking for. The BetterBin competition page explains: "Recycled materials, innovative fabrication methods, and/or technologies applied in a clever, imaginative, and original way, are welcome. The design must be able to be easily reconfigured or repurposed for use as a recycling bin, and must accommodate sustainability messaging."

"It gives us this opportunity to engage with New Yorkers, around ‘What are the goals of the city? What’s the city going to be in 10 years? What's the city going to be in 20 years?'" Garcia recently explained to Fast Company of the competition. She notes that New Yorkers feel "really strongly" about litter and where it goes. "One of the things New Yorkers respond to almost immediately is anything having to do with litter. They have a very visceral response to when litter is not in its place."

Ease of use for sanitation workers, who empty each of the baskets at least once a day or more, is also a paramount design concern given that workers must lift the cans, empty them into a truck and then replace them at the curb. To that end, the bins must weigh less than 32 pounds when empty and include ergonomic features that allow for quick, easy and injury-free servicing. Ergonomic unfriendliness is one drawback of the existing '30s-era baskets.

To that end, the receptacles must be easily movable and stackable for security purposes. (New York's public trash cans are temporarily removed for large-scale events.) "Designs must be conscious of and minimize risks associated with misuse of public space infrastructure," reads the brief.

Last but not least, BetterBin submissions must be durable and able to withstand the elements—wind, rain, rowdy tourists—while not breaking the bank. The current public trash cans are already fairly inexpensive and long-lasting, which explains why they've been around for so long. The new winning design should expand on these qualities, costing no more than $175 per can and lasting over a minimum of 2,500 services cycles.

No doubt some New Yorkers will lament the fact that the days of old-school public litter baskets are indeed numbered. It's understandable—these wire mesh workhorses have been gracing city streets for nearly a century. People have become accustomed to them, even when overflowing from the top, oozing mysterious liquids or encircled with large vermin.

But unlike other vestiges of old New York, the baskets aren’t vanishing completely. They're being revamped so that everyone—visitors and those who have resided in the Big Apple for five, 20 or 50 years alike—can make even better use of them. And even in a city beset with hyper-gentrification, this change is nothing but a good thing.

"The look and functionality of a DSNY litter basket has an impact on some 6,500 New York City sanitation workers and millions of New Yorkers and visitors," says Van Alen executive director David van der Leer in a statement. "The potential for positive change is huge, in terms of the number of urban lives this product design touches."