New York’s Green Mesh Trash Can Will Soon Be Gone
I have an image of a New York City trash can tattooed on my leg. Not the high-end silver models that occasionally pop up in business districts, but the green wire-mesh bins that have dotted the cityscape for nearly 100 years. Usually overflowing, sometimes on fire, the cans are instantly recognizable symbols of the city. Going over one is also a milestone in the life of any New York skateboarder—one reason why I have it indelibly stamped on my body.
“A lot of skaters always talk about how you can roll a sidewalk, right? Can you kick a can?” said Steve Rodriguez, owner of 5Boro Skateboards, one of the city’s oldest skate brands. You’d be hard-pressed to find a skating video shot in New York over the past 35 years that doesn’t feature them in one way or another. Legendary skater Tyshawn Jones, who this month was crowned Skater of the Year for the second time by Thrasher magazine, is known for exploding cans with such force that they look like miniature Lego versions of them.
But what constitutes a major obstacle in skateboarding has long been criticized as a noisy and unsightly nuisance. The net can offer absolutely no protection against mice. It weighs 30 pounds empty, is very heavy when full, and has sharp bottom edges that bump into sewer workers’ feet. For decades, the city has promised to replace them with an improved model. Next year, that may finally begin to happen. Where mesh containers once stood will be new cans with a sleek, modular design created by Brooklyn-based design studio Group Project. Winner of the BetterBin competition held by the Department of Hygiene in 2019 to “reimagine” the mesh basket, the can appears to improve on the old model in many ways.
Photo: Eric Petschek
To design it, project leader Colin Kelly and his team spent time talking to street collectors in sewer garages and on the street, testing prototypes with them. “Ergonomics was a big thing — how to reduce weight and add more comfortable grip areas for them to pick up and serve,” Kelly said. The result is a can designed to relieve sewer workers of having to lift the whole thing, as they’ll be able to open the metal shell and grab the lightweight, removable plastic liners hidden inside that weigh little more than ten kilograms (about 20 pounds less than the mesh basket). This will also be made easier by the existence of eight ergonomically designed handles on the bin, compared to two wire bins. Interchangeable color-coded lids (black for trash, blue for recycling) also make it easy to identify what goes inside. The new cans are also drilled in a pattern of narrow slits around the middle and towards the top, which ensures airflow, gives them a lower center of gravity to prevent them from tipping over, and allows collectors to see if they are emptied. . What about mice? Kelly says the cracks are big enough to allow the liquid to drain, but too small for rats to squeeze through.
Photo: Eric Petschek
Nicole Doz-Pillarella, who was a street collector for four years and now works in DSNY’s Bureau of Public Affairs, admits there is a bit of nostalgia for mesh cans among sewer workers. But there are a few things about the new tubs that she’s looking forward to. Aside from the reduced weight, she likes their aesthetics. “It’s a little more modern, a little sleeker looking,” she said. “It’s something I look forward to seeing on the road.”
This isn’t the first time New York has tried to get rid of its wire cans. In 1972 the city began producing hexagonal, 470-pound concrete monstrosities in hopes of selling real estate on the sides to generate revenue for the city. Only four years later the plan was abandoned and the wire baskets returned. Unsurprisingly, sewer workers welcomed the return of the mesh cans. Today, a handful of concrete bins remain. The idea was to use them as a kind of Brutalist flowerpot, but over 40 years later they are often filled with rubbish again.
The city tried again in 1987, this time with a design created by two Sanitation Department employees. The new bins were made of blue polyethylene and rounded at the bottom and were placed inside a metal frame attached to the pavement. Unfortunately, polyethylene had a tendency to catch fire when cigarette butts were thrown into bins.
For most skateboarders, the new cans will definitely pose a challenge. For one, they’re about 11 inches taller — too much for most to handle, except maybe Tyshawn Jones. Skaters can always flip them or use a ramp to make the jump, but the thrill won’t be the same.
It’s possible (but unlikely) that the city will reverse course again after the latest model is introduced and return to the arms of the cool metal mesh that has carried it through so many decades. And while the cans will be missed by many, especially skaters, Rodriguez isn’t too concerned. “It will be bad for them to disappear, but if you’re of a younger generation that didn’t know, then something else will be that milestone,” he said. “Maybe it will be the new cans.”