Maintenance workers take care of the city. They keep it humming and prevent chaos and crisis every day. Maintaining things, like making things, is an art, and maintenance workers are masters of their art. For decades, this has been the argument made by the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, from her first forays into “maintenance art” in the 1960s to her decades-long tenure as Artist-in-Residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), where she has celebrated and honored the work of the men and women who “keep New York City alive.”
As part of her recent retrospective exhibition at the Queens Museum, Ukeles convened artists and experts in maintenance for a roundtable discussion about the future of garbage in New York City, exploring their critical role in the Department of Sanitation’s goal of achieving zero waste by 2030. Supers from residential buildings across the city and the DSNY Superintendents responsible for their districts shared their visions of a zero waste city and talked about some of the things that stand in their way. Before sanitation workers can whisk away our trash, building superintendents make sure everything is sorted, bagged, and makes it to the curb. They are educators, enforcers, and innovators in maintenance. Below, three supers, Martin Robinson, Eddie Cheaz and Derbert King, give us a tour of their buildings, with a focus on the garbage rooms. They share their strategies for managing our growing waste stream — from iPhones to chicken bones — and for managing the behavior of the people who produce it. –M.M.
As apartment dwellers, many New Yorkers have the privilege of tossing their trash in a common bin and walking away, knowing that it will soon be hauled off in a garbage truck. But to get to the truck, trash must move through the building and emerge on the curb, at the specified time, in the ubiquitous mound of black, blue, and clear bags and twine-tied bundles of cardboard. The sequence of steps in between is the invisible work of building supers, whether it’s managing the staff who empty compactors, fill bags, and pull carts, or teaching residents what goes in each bin and re-sorting when they get it wrong. The Department of Sanitation (DSNY) works closely with building superintendents to explain the rules and coordinate the handoff on the curb, but the super’s art is adapting the process to his or her specific building.
In 2015, the City announced its intent to achieve zero waste sent to landfills by 2030. To realize this goal, the most dramatic change — and perhaps the heaviest lift for apartment dwellers and building supers — will be separating kitchen scraps for composting. The City is collecting organic waste from a million residents on a volunteer basis, and separate organics collection could go citywide as soon as 2018. Additionally, New York State has banned curbside disposal of electronic devices, and DSNY now encourages larger buildings to install containers for e-waste and clothing pick-up services. DSNY is funding community drop-off locations for residents in smaller buildings, too.
But “getting to zero” will also require changes in policy. Only 17 percent of residential waste is recycled citywide. When collection is paid for out of the general tax fund, there is no direct economic incentive for residents to do a better job. DSNY is looking into adopting a Save-As-You-Throw policy in which residents would be charged for what they throw away, typically per bag or per bin, while recycling and compost collection would be free (or less costly). And recycling may soon be collected in one stream. DSNY is developing strategies to facilitate these shifts, and architects are looking at the role building design can play in reducing waste — but supers will be on the front lines.
If a resident puts trash in the recycling, and a super doesn’t catch it, the building will be fined. It is the super’s job to make sure that residents understand what to do. As New York City recognizes the importance of reducing household waste, there are more distinctions to be made in the trash room. If there is not enough space for recycling or compost, or if these bins are in the basement, while the trash chute is just down the hall, chances are that material that could be recovered will end up in a landfill. It is the super’s job to compensate for buildings that are not designed for current waste flows.
We wondered what lessons supers might have for apartment dwellers, supers in other buildings, and even for the Sanitation Department. We met with three proactive supers from very different buildings to find out how they manage trash in their buildings. We visualized what goes on in the spaces designated for “garbage” and “recycling” and recorded some of the artful solutions supers have developed to adapt to their situations.
Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you get into this line of work?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I’ve always been hands-on. I’ve always just had a knack for being neat. My parents would tell me to clean the kitchen, and I’m taking pots off the shelves and wiping down the shelves, and going the whole ten yards. From there I didn’t initially go into maintenance or renovations or anything of that sort. I spent some time in the army as a military police officer. After that I went to Morehouse, and then transferred to Georgia State. I was studying business. Long story short, I started my own construction company. What I saw was a lot of contractors come in and they do a bang-up job on the big part of the job, but they would fail to hit the finer points — like the caulking, the details. It’s in the details that you really hit it. I’m always eager to learn, so I wound up getting my electrical license in Georgia.
Then I came here. I’d never really thought about a super job. It’s not really something they tell you about in school, and I think it’s really a position that’s passed on from generation to generation. I just interviewed for this job. I came in and said, “I think it might be something I’d like to do since I’m huge on customer service.”
Why is the building called Striver’s Gardens?
Striver’s Gardens is named after the community of Harlem, Striver’s Row, where you had a lot of jazz musicians, a lot of lawyers, a lot of people that made some money. Striver’s Gardens is Harlem’s crown jewel. It was the first luxury building of this caliber built in Harlem. We definitely believe we are at the forefront of what luxury should be for condominiums, and I war against the mindset that we should expect something less because we’re in Harlem as opposed to on Park Avenue.
The building received its Certificate of Occupancy in 2005. We have 170 families. So it’s upwards of 500 people that are here.
Do you live in the building?
Yes, yes. I’m part of that 170, and my family lives here. I have that vested interest. I treat it as my own.
How do you get rid of trash and recycling in the building?
What makes this building a little bit easier than others is that it is a newer building. We have areas in the building that were designed for recycling and for the proper movement of trash. We have a compactor room on every single floor with a compactor chute. We are able to break down the receiving of trash and recyclables by floor. Once it’s received into the compactor chute or in one of those bins, it makes it easier when my guys come and pull out the items that residents have set aside for recycling and then to double sort that and take it down to our recycling room.
What does “double sort” mean?
We ask the residents to sort, but then we double sort because they don’t usually do it the right way. All it takes is one. We might have ten residents that separate the plastic from the paper, and then that one person comes and dumps their bag of mixed items and now we have to go in and sort what’s already been sorted.
We do everything here. We do compost, we do the regular recycling, e-cycle, and re-fashion bins. That’s the clothing.
Our compost bins are down here in the garage. I’ve asked them to put in paper. It’s a little thing that I read online on how can we reduce the smell. Hey, we’ve got a lot of newspapers that we’re throwing out every single week. Let’s put them in here first. Newspapers are recyclable. They can be compost. Put them in here and absorb that odor.
How would you describe your approach to waste management?
Communication is key. I try to live by that. One of the things that I’ve taken upon myself is to make sure there is proper signage.
You may be a brain surgeon but that doesn’t mean you automatically know how to recycle correctly, because this is not your area of expertise. We give them the information in multiple facets, whether it’s an e-mail, a news blast, whether it’s big blue garbage cans with a triangle on them, we give it to them as many ways as possible so that hopefully they’ll get it.
And then simplicity. One of the things that I’ve found that really makes the communication effective is pictures. I love pictures, because it’s something that people can take in that one second. A picture’s worth 1000 words, it stays on their brain.
The idea of all the simplicity, and the communication, and the pictures, and really spelling it out… where does this approach come from?
I’m wired that way. My guys say I’m OCD. I like things really neat. I like things really organized. I want that supermarket approach. I want to walk into my supply room and see things lined up in order. I was like that before I went into the military.
One of the things that I implemented was the 6S. It’s an adaptation from the Toyota plant. They had the 5S. The S’s [in Japanese] basically mean tidiness and order, cleanliness or sweep, neatness or sustainability, safety, and discipline. This is a 6S area. I added safety. What you see is everything has a home. A mop bucket has a place. The mop has a place. The dust pan has a place. Every single item that we touch in this building has a place.
Do you have a good relationship with Department of Sanitation workers? Do you communicate with them, too?
Absolutely. The grassroots of it happens with the supers speaking directly to the sanitation guys that are working a particular run. I think it’s like community policing, we should have the same guys working a particular area, so that we get to know them, they get to know us, and we can then build that rapport with those guys.
I go over and talk to my sanitation guys and ask them, “What are your issues with this building?” One of the key things is, “Oh, every time we come here the bags are too heavy.” They’re frustrated, but who do they voice that to? Prior to me having a conversation with them, I wouldn’t have known.
I said, “You find a bag that’s too long, too heavy, has too much air in it, and I’ll take care of it.”
So the name on that bag belongs to your employee who put it together?
Yeah, yeah. They initialed it.
Does that mean that the sanitation worker on the curb finds it and says, “I found so and so…”
The bags are initialed with different individuals who are responsible for the bags. Everybody has their own little tag. That’s Gus, he writes it out. Some of them go so far as to put the date and time on it. I don’t require them to do that, but sometimes they want to go an extra mile.
Then I can identify exactly which bag. I don’t play.
The recycling room smells so good!
My recycling room doesn’t need to smell like garbage, so we will work to keep it clean. We work to keep it straight.
I think that even when the system is in place and working really well, we have to war against complacency. We have to always war against that opportunity for the individual who is rushing, or having a bad day, or who just does not care. We have to be prepared to respond to it. I’ll send out e-mails. I try and inform the residents of the dangers. God forbid you’ve dropped a glass bottle down the chute. It’s going to break, and my guys are pulling the trash bags out, and they cut their finger. Worker’s Comp. What you do when you put your trash into the compactor chute matters. New York has a thing: “If you see something, say something.” My residents here will call me. They will text me. I get texts at ten at night from residents.
You don’t think that creates distrust among residents?
I think it creates an area of concern and an area of care. People know that, “Hey, I’m in a building where other people care.” I don’t need to be concerned that the resident might see me putting trash in, unless I’m putting the wrong trash in the wrong bin.
You also mentioned communication works in both ways. I imagine that because people know that you are listening and your staff know that you’re listening that they know you are appreciating what they’re doing.
By me empowering them or initialing the bags, they are now taking responsibility for something. They can feel good about it. It lets them know that somebody is watching and they don’t feel like, “I’m just doing this thing day in and day out, the same old thing, and nobody notices.” I think they appreciate that. They appreciate that I have the Employee of the Month. I will challenge them, “Why haven’t you made the Employee of the Month in four or five months?” A lot of times I’ll hear, “Oh, I’m doing what I’m supposed to.” The Employee of the Month isn’t for the employee that does what they’re supposed to do. You get a check every Thursday for doing what you’re supposed to do. Employee of the Month means that they’ve gone consistently above and beyond what they’re supposed to do.
It sounds like your approach really connects to the building’s name, Striver’s Gardens.
Striving or trying, pushing forward to improve on whatever is already improved. I believe that no matter how good the building looks, it could look better. No matter what systems I’ve implemented, they’re not perfect and they can be improved upon. I challenge the guys to improve on them. I challenge myself to improve on them. I believe in this. Go the extra mile. It’s never crowded.
How did you come to be the superintendent of this building?
My family came from China. I think it happened around the ‘40s when the Communist Party took over, and then all the businessmen and tradesmen, if they didn’t get out, they would have lost everything. They sold all their belongings, their businesses, and because my family was part of silk manufacturing they had more money than many, so they were able to get out quickest. They wound up hopping on a ship to Costa Rica, and then some went to the Dominican Republic.
When my grandpa and grandma moved to the city they bought this building. It was the ‘50s or ‘60s … After my grandma passed away, my grandpa just handed it over to my cousins and the next generation. I was living on Long Island, I couldn’t find much work there, so I moved to the city. My aunt Iris said, “It’s not the Ritz, but it’s something.” They’ve been very, very, generous for allowing me to live here. Initially, I was doing a lot of the work, but because of the language barrier and because of my school schedule, we brought in other individuals to help. Now I’ve become more of a supervisor.
As a supervisor and previously as the superintendent, what’s the most challenging part of this work?
The language barrier. And the budget. And the space. The language is really tough. What we wind up doing is we’ve begun to encourage the tenants to speak amongst themselves, like if one tenant has a problem but we can’t understand them, they’ll ask someone who speaks both dialects, and then we’ll find someone who speaks English and Chinese both, three layers, and then you resolve it. Usually it gets done.
How many dialects would you say are represented here in this building?
I think seven total with Mandarin, so it’s Mandarin, Cantonese, Bhutanese, and then there’s smaller tribes that we don’t know.
How do you communicate your strategy and rules to your tenants?
Usually on rent day they will come to the management office, near Mott Street. We will usually give them a notice that’s been translated into Mandarin, English and different dialects. Or we’ll put notices in the building. There is paper plastered everywhere, like in the old movies with the rice paper. A week later we will take them down. That’s usually how it happens. It’s not a very social building. I think it’s because of the various dialects.
Tell me more about the building.
This building was erected in 1900, I think. It’s quite old, and it was designed for the lifestyle back then. They worked within their budget, and this was all they could build. There are five floors in the building and 20 units. You can see the rooms are very narrow.
How does waste removal work within the physical constraints of this building?
The largest trash bag is the size of a plastic shopping bag, so not very big, because that’s just the mentality of the Chinese: “Why buy a tall plastic bag when I can use three plastic bags from the store?” They’ll have a little paint bucket with a plastic bag and they’ll put the food or the trash in it, and on a daily basis they’ll bring it down out of the apartment. They used to throw it down before.
Wait, there’s a gap down the stairwell, so they would go to the edge and just drop it?
Yeah. It was pretty funny. If you were walking by you’d just hear, Whoosh. It was like a game almost: “Get it in the trash bin.” If it hit it would be a miracle, but usually it would bounce along the stairs and trash would spill. It would be a mess. Once we put the lids on, the game ended.
What else has changed since you started here?
Ok, since I’ve come it has improved — initially the trash bins were open lid. The smell and the flies were a big issue. The bins were oversized. What we’ve done is gotten smaller bins. Now we can change the bags more often because they’re smaller. We’ve also implemented a recycling bin for paper, and that’s worked out a lot better. We also have the plastic recycling bin which was installed, and we’re now doing the liners inside the trash bins. Whereas before, it just wasn’t done.
How does the trash get to the curb?
Three times a week, our employee begins the trash collections. He will put it on the curb. There’s usually a seven-foot space in front of the building for him to put it on, and then he’ll tie up the bags, and if there’s overflow, he’ll put it in the basement. The plastics and paper and cardboard and oversized items, like mattresses, he’ll do that on a separate day.
What advice would you have for the Sanitation Department or the City that would make your situation easier?
The organics recycling program has helped me tremendously. It changed the way I think about food. I put food scraps into a container that I keep in the fridge, and that keeps the odor down, and that has tremendously reduced rodents and bugs. But the fridges are so small, residents can’t bring up large pieces of appliances. And if you look at the fridge, I’ve seen some of them open the fridge, it’s packed. There is no space to put the container. The way they cook, they pour the oil into the bin, and they take the trash, and they bring it downstairs right away. If there was some kind of small food bin for organics that could be designed, so that they could keep it in their kitchen next to the trash bin, they’d be able to do it. The one I’ve seen is larger, so it wouldn’t be conducive for this environment.
You don’t currently envision putting a bin downstairs for food waste?
That would involve removing one of the trash bins. In order for us to do that we’d be down to two trash bins. I do recognize that having one for food would minimize the amount of trash that they would generate. But because their space in the fridge is limited… That would require them to have that bin, an airtight container that they could keep on their floor.
It seems like everything comes down to the lack of space.
I think with human nature, people tend to get used to their environment. Whether it’s in the slums of Brazil or in the Dominican Republic, they get used to their environment and they work around it. When we put the new bins out, the older tenants, because they were used to throwing the garbage down, they were like, “Ah, now we have to climb down and put it in?” Now they understand that with the lids, there is no smell, there’s no flies, which were annoying. It’s been to their benefit.
You mention older tenants. Do neighbors sometimes help each other, for instance, do some take things down for them?
Yeah, we have a family that has spread to three units, so they help each other out. If there was an emergency they would speak to each other, but generally they don’t. We have one tenant who lives on the top floor, all the way in the back, and she’s gotta be over 100, but she’s old school. The way she pays rent is collecting bottles. Every night she goes out, and she will go and harvest around the area. She’s gathering all this plastic that people just throw away. If you think about it, it’s really amazing what she’s doing. And then she’ll bring it up, and you hear her every night, step by step, then she’ll stop. You’ll hear the bag drop. She has a bamboo stick. There’s a certain time in the morning she comes back out and she goes to the pick-up location and she gets paid. That’s the only time you see her.
She speaks a very, very rare dialect. I’d love to speak to her.
Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you come to this line of work?
I’ve been in this line of work for over 23 years. I’ve been in the union for 23 years. I actually started as a standby painter for a building in Manhattan. From that point, I went on to a porter position, then went on to a handyman’s position, and from there went on to a transition program to be a superintendent. Went to school with the union, a good part of six years while I was a handyman and a porter. Got all the necessary paperwork to become a super, and I became a super in 2000. I was a superintendent in the Bronx and then came for the interview here, got the job, and I’ve been here for 14 years.
I always said that porter was the most important position in our organization. They clean up everything. They’re the eyes, ears, and heart of the property.
Tell me a bit about this property.
This is a co-op complex. It sits on 47 acres. We have 850 co-op units here ranging from one bedroom all the way up to a three bedroom. It’s a big place. We have ten garbage rooms, seven laundry rooms…
How long has it been around for?
Over 60 years. It used to be a veterans’ complex. In 1990, it went private. That’s when anybody could buy in. Most of the senior citizens who are still here are veterans from way back when. Once it went private it became co-ops, and now it’s a big melting pot.
Just like Queens.
Just like Queens.
Will you walk me through a typical day when it comes to getting rid of waste?
It’s an everyday thing. We work Monday to Friday. Each porter is in charge of two garbage rooms on the property. Those garbage rooms have to be attended to every day. It’s harder in a garden apartment than it is in a Manhattan building. A building is kind of compact, so you don’t have to move around as much as in garden apartments, where you have 50 acres. We kind of come up with a pattern, and we follow that pattern every day. If you attend to it every day then you won’t have a build up to where it takes you eight hours to clean up one spot.
How are you actually doing it? Walking?
We walk and we have golf carts and we have trucks, because we do snow removal.
What kind of communication do you have with residents?
We have a lot of communication. The President of the Board sends out his monthly message to the tenants. We hand it out to each tenant just like we deliver the rent receipts in the mailbox. We keep communication open as far as certain rules and regulations, like we have a problem here with people throwing kitty litter down the drain, down the toilet. It clogs up the pipeline… very expensive to take care of.
We had an epidemic in reference to tenants giving a garbage room key to a contractor, and the contractor was coming here at ten o’clock at night, opening up the garbage room, closing the garbage room up. So there’s a sign on our garbage room doors that says, “You will be fined if you dump commercial garbage here.” If a van comes in there we’ll call and report it. That is illegal dumping. We had to come up with something, and once we did that, and a couple of guys got fines that didn’t expect it, it stops.
That’s pretty much how we keep in contact with the tenants to let them know what’s what. We also have a big old massive thing of house rules. You might have a tenant that says, “Oh, I didn’t know that,” but they received the house rules!
What have you done differently since you started here?
: I noticed when I came here that the garbage rooms were just terrifying. Once one person throws something on the floor, if you don’t clean it up, the next person’s going to follow the same trail. You could open up the garbage room door and there is garbage everywhere.
What I did was I came up with a pattern. I went out and bought plywood. What we do now is we rotate the containers. The first container near the door is where everybody is going to throw their garbage. They’ll continue to throw it in here even when it’s full. Now it’s my porter’s responsibility, once that container gets full, to move another empty one near the door. What we did was put plywood on top of the containers so that people can’t throw garbage in there. This way we keep those empty. When this one gets full, we’ll move it over, take the plywood off, and there’s an empty container. We started to do that, and … miracle! No more garbage on the floor. With the paper, I told the guys, “Don’t let people throw boxes in there. It takes up space. Your job is to come in here every morning, cut these boxes, flatten them out, and put them in the container.” Once we started doing that we had a lot more control over the garbage rooms. We can keep them way cleaner than they were before. The only day we can’t keep control of is right after Christmas, ‘cause there’s boxes, wrapping paper, everything!
What are your big problems here, other than Christmas?
Our biggest problems out here are rats, raccoons, and possums. The rodents are attracted to garbage. We had a whole family of raccoons that we watched come out of the wooded area off the Grand Central Parkway, cross Stronghurst Avenue, and go directly to the garbage room. Now they can’t get in because we secured everything.
But we catch them. Anything that we catch in our traps we take and free in Alley Pond Park. With squirrels you have to take them a little farther out because they’ll come back in a ten mile radius. We had one, one time, we caught him in someone’s apartment. Then we caught him in somebody’s attic, we said, “This can’t be the same squirrel.” This time I spray-painted his tail, and I took him to a park a ways away here in Queens. It took him probably two and a half weeks until he came back. I said: smart squirrel.
Do your kids take out your trash?
Yes. The little one. He’s in eighth grade now, and it’s his job now. I gotta yell at him to remove the trash.
Is it harder to teach your kids to take out the trash or your tenants?
I just yell at my kids. They take it out. Tenants I can’t yell at.