Last April, New York City’s Department of Sanitation pushed back the waste set-out times to make life harder for the 3 million rats residing in the five boroughs. Plastic trash bags that previously could be placed by the curb as early as 4 p.m. now have to wait until 8 p.m. Whether the strategy is disrupting the rodent population is unclear, but one result is not in dispute: the change is making life harder for some human residents.
“I slept just four hours last night,” said Socorro Maldonado, who – along with her husband – earns a living pulling redeemable bottles and cans from the bins and bags set out on the curb. “We finished work at midnight and today I woke up at 5 a.m. so I would reach the waste that some buildings set out at 6 a.m., before Sanitation picks it up,” she said early one Friday afternoon in September. She was picking through trash bins on West 112th Street in Morningside Heights, along the route she covers daily. She has done this for more than 10 years, receiving the 5-cent deposit for each bottle and can that is found and returned to a retailer or distributor for refund.
Maldonado listened to a sad, heartbroken song by Los Temerarios, the Mexican Grupera band, while she worked. She had amassed bags of discarded beverage containers that exceeded her height. “I’m exhausted,” she said. Since the trash schedule changed, she has been working with little sleep.
Some buildings wait until 6 a.m. to put out their garbage just before the sanitation trucks pass. No matter the time, the Maldonados must be there to beat their competition. “Every cent counts,” said Luz Maldonado, the eldest daughter who sometimes helps her parents. The family can pack 500 cans into a one-meter-tall plastic bag that nets them $25 at a redemption center.
The new trash schedule has also altered the routines for building superintendents. Pushing the set-out time back four hours is intended to disrupt dining habits of the city’s rodents. “If rats can’t feed, they can’t breed,” said Belinda Mager, a spokesperson for the Sanitation Department. Almost a third of trash collection in the city’s highest density areas is now done at midnight, rather than 6 a.m., she said.
This means that the vast majority of the city’s garbage still sits on the streets until the trucks pass between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.
“Rats are nocturnal,” Michael Parsons, an urban rodentologist and visiting research scholar at Fordham University in New York, said. “The overall population will be unaffected by the shift from 4pm to 8pm. Any expert would tell you that.”
Ajay Pathania, the superintendent of a Columbia University-owned building at West 113th Street and Broadway, is certain about one outcome of the new schedule.
“It’s just inconvenient for workers,” he said. “We worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Now, we have to work from 6 a.m. because if waste is not there before 7 a.m., you get a ticket.” When asked whether he had seen fewer rats as a result, Pathania just looked angry and skeptical.