City of Systems: Waste Removal

Charged with the efficient management of solid waste, New York City’s Department of Sanitation operates 59 district garages and manages a fleet of 2,022 rear-loading collection trucks and 450 mechanical brooms. Each week, approximately 64,000 tons of household and institutional waste are collected. In 2009, the average truck collected 9.9 tons of refuse and 5.6 tons of recyclables per shift. But public awareness of what happens to that trash once it leaves the curb is limited. So, to shed some light on the journey from trashcan to landfill — past, present and future — we talked with Elizabeth Royte, author of the 2005 book Garbage Land, who offers a snapshot of how New Yorkers have treated their trash from the 18th century onwards. In the video below, she describes how her research into where exactly her trash was going after she threw it out has led her to become a more ecological citizen, with “a systems view” of our interconnected processes of manufacturing, transportation, disposal and re-use.

The immense distances trash travels (and the amount of cost and energy used to transport, transfer, recycle, incinerate or dump it) pose obvious questions about how we expend environmental resources in support of our country’s vast consumption practices. According to Rit Aggarwala, former director of the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, it’s time to shift the ways we measure environmental impacts “from combustion towards consumption.” He was speaking at a conference of city planning professionals entitled Zoning the City, but the implications of his words extend far beyond land use: he was expressing the far-reaching truth that there’s more than just carbon in our footprints. And while engines and energy usage are the primary metrics used to calculate degrees of green, zooming out to a broader inquiry into the infrastructure that supports both the supply chain and the removal chain raises larger questions about the life-cycles of the products and materials that pass through our daily lives.

Two years ago, for its landmark exhibition Toward the Sentient City, the Architectural League commissioned five innovative design projects that interrogated the convergence of digital technologies and the urban systems. One of the projects, Trash | Track, started with a simple question: “why do we know so much about the supply chain and so little about the removal chain?” To close this gap in public awareness about where stuff goes after we throw it away, the team behind Trash | Track (MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory) devised sensors that would track the movements of a variety of everyday objects on their often convoluted routes to their final destinations. They completed a pilot project in partnership with the City of Seattle that visualized these journeys and documented the ultimate fate of pieces of trash that are barely considered after being tossed in the garbage (see introductory video below).

Trash | Track from senseablecitylab on YouTube.

To be sure, sensors and analytics can help us make more intelligent choices about how we use resources, but as we go about enhancing or improving complex urban systems through technology, we must also provoke discussion about what kind of city we want. What are the values that should guide our quest for efficiency, reliability and convenience in the technologies that support the urban environment? And how can those values be informed by careful consideration of those infrastructures that may be out of sight, but should never be — if we want ecological, economical and resilient cities — out of mind.


This Urban Omnibus video is the fourth and final in a series called City of Systems, a suite of short videos intended to offer a poetic peek behind the scenes of some of the complex systems that enable New York City to function. This video series is made possible by IBM as part of its commitment to use technology and information to help build more sustainable and intelligent cities. 

Garbage Truck at Night | Photo: Drew Geraets


Elizabeth Royte is the author of Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale and Why We Bought ItGarbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash; and The Tapir’s Morning Bath: Solving the Mysteries of the Tropical Rain Forest. Her writing on science and the environment has appeared in Harper’s, National Geographic, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, and other national publications.

4 Responses to “City of Systems: Waste Removal”

  1. Russ says:

    Question: Why is are waste per person so much higher than several other countries? tks, Russ

  2. Good Fruit says:

    The direction and editing on the first video are amazing. Go Trash!

  3. Mary Wise says:

    I am so proud of people who care about the terrible waste, and their work to abolish it to the best of their ability. They must be very intelligent, and resourceful, and great workers! sincerely, mary.

  4. O. Mendoza says:

    The video with Ms. Royte was fascinating and packed with info and ideas. The sound editing was a little frustrating though. You recorded her in a room with lots of ambient noise from the street and then layered loud music on top of her that was particularly distracting whenever the bass would hit a loud low note. She’s also talking pretty quickly so the added noise made it very challenging to understand what she was saying. Perhaps you could release a re-edited version with no music or the music balanced at a lower level so it’s not competing with her.

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