A Load of Garbage

New York sanitation workers remove trash cans from the Williamsburg portion of the New York City Marathon route early in the morning of Saturday on Nov. 4, 2017. (Photo by: Molly Enking)

The New York City Marathon produces sweat, tears, triumph- and trash. Lots and lots of trash. By the time the last runner crossed the finish line on Sunday, 50,000 athletes threw 26.2 miles’ worth of crumpled paper cups, protein bar wrappers, and discarded sweatbands across all five boroughs.

But even if environmentally conscious runners wanted to responsibly dispose of their free water bottles, they can’t.

Every year, as a safety precaution, hundreds of trash cans disappear from alongside the marathon route without fanfare or notice. The New York Department of Sanitation removes all trash cans and recycling bins in the days before the event, and bolt down the solar compactors that are too large to remove.

“It is our opinion that it is more effective to sweep up litter following such massive events, rather than have the bins present a potential security risk,” said Vito Turso, the DSNY deputy commissioner for public affairs.

Early on Saturday morning, workers from sanitation garage BK1, which is based in Bushwick and serves Williamsburg and Greenpoint, removed cans from the corner of Bedford Avenue and North Fifth Street. Their process mirrored that of dozens of other sanitation workers across the city that morning, each assigned to different portions of the marathon route depending on which community their garage serves.

First come the rack trucks – trucks with open beds and enforced rails on the side – followed closely by a regular collection truck. Sanitation workers and their supervisors empty each can into the collection truck before loading it into the rack truck to be stored back at the garage.

Because the marathon route follows Bedford Avenue through Northern Brooklyn, many of the employees at BK1 have worked the marathon every year. One worker of 10 years said that the trash cans are so heavy, it takes two men to lift them. Also too heavy to remove: The city’s new solar-powered trash compactors, which are padlocked shut and bolted to the ground for the races.

One hundred such compactors in Greenpoint and Williamsburg were bolted shut with steel on Saturday, Nov. 4. Each can takes about a minute to secure.

Indeed, the proliferation of the solar trash compactors in the city has made what used to be an arduous task for sanitation workers much simpler. According to one sanitation worker, the process of picking up and storing garbage cans used to take a good bit of time—and they had to go out in the dead of night to get it done. They’d tow dozens of empty cans back to to the BK1 garage, only to haul them back out 12-24 hours later. Now, thanks to the solar cans, BK1 workers only had three trash cans to pick up in Williamsburg this year.

Two Bigbelly—the third party vendor that owns the solar cans—employees had a map of the marathon route in their truck showing all the cans they had to seal. They checked off cans as they went, first up Bedford Avenue, then Manhattan Ave. When a reporter asked to take a photo of the map, the employees declined.

“That’s what the terrorists want!” one said, cheerfully.

Sanitation workers go through the same process for other major events around the city, such as New Year’s Eve at Times Square.

Security at large events like this has tightened since the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, in which the first blast was believed to have detonated from a garbage can close to the finish line. But New York has been taking extra security precautions since 2001. Two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, trash can removal was implemented for the first time along the marathon route.

New York saw the damage that a trash-can-based bomb can wreak last September, when a pressure cooker bomb hidden inside a dumpster outside of an apartment complex injured 31 people in Chelsea. A New Jersey man is currently standing trial in that case.

On Sunday night, all the racers headed home, medals around their necks. That’s when New York’s sanitation workers headed back out, to sweep up the streets, open up the trash compactors, and replace the missing cans – without fanfare or notice.

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