You say "containerization"

I say use a freakin' trash bin

Welcome to Team Trash, a newsletter about the places where humans and wildlife meet. I'm Bethany Brookshire, science journalist and author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains.

What is containerization?

In software, it's a neat way to package code. In freight, it's using those giant metal standard truck backs you see on 18-wheelers (which, by the way, have a FASCINATING history, and if you're feeling nerdy on the topic, I highly recommend Christopher Mims' book Arriving Today).

In sanitation, it's a trash bin.

To be fair it is often kind of a fancy trash bin. When people in sanitation talk about containerization, what they are referring to is large containers, usually taking up a parking spot, where everyone on a block can dump their trash. That trash is "containerized," out of the way, and inaccessible to rats.

And if you want fewer rats in places like New York City, containerization is what you need. Unfortunately, it's something NYC is going to have a terrible time with.

In NYC, trash isn't put in cans. It's put out in soft, chewable plastic bags, every night, without fail, on the sidewalk, where it sits ALL NIGHT. This results in a bunch of nasty things.

  • The rats chew easily through the plastic to access the garbage.

  • The holes allow wind and gravity to play with the trash, helping to spread it around and making the entire city rather gross.

  • Many of the bags are small, or sometimes individual food containers that get easily blown about.

  • If you're walking in NYC you have definitely stepped in, around, or had to weasel your way past some truly unmentionable substance.

If NYC wants to get rid of the rats, what they really need to change is their access to food, and that means changing the trash pickup. The city could require hard sided individual trash cans, but honestly? It's a no go. First, the cans take up more space on the sidewalk, or get in the road. Second, the empty cans get tossed by sanitation workers, not lined up neatly, creating hazards for pedestrians.

The second option is containerization, a big trash bin on the corner, taking up a parallel parking spot, where people can stick their trash. Permanent! Easy (if the garbage trucks can use an arm to lift them like dumpsters)! Rat-free!

A daydream.

First, this requires giving up a parallel parking spot in NYC. Don't you EVER say that one out loud. Second, as I found out when reporting on the efforts of scientists to hand out bear-proof trashcans: You can lead the person to the solution to human-wildlife conflict, but you CANNOT make them lock up their trash.

How do we know? They tried containerization in Hells Kitchen. The bins look very nice. They also look like they've got a pile of trash bags right in front of it. In fact, people dumped their bags in front of the bins even when the bins were not full (or at least, that's the claim, others claim the bins WERE full, in which case they are not being emptied enough). As with bear proof bins, it's possible that education and enforcement would need to be very strong to get people to use them correctly.

In a way, though, containerization worked! It did! The trash was off the sidewalk! Even when the bags were in front of the bins they were in the gutter, NOT on the sidewalk. Look how clean that sidewalk was! Gorgeous. The residents noted that the rats disappeared! A success that could be MORE successful if people are able to use the bins correctly.

But it is success that NYC will not be expanding. Why? Well, people didn't use them perfectly. They picked bins that sanitation workers have to empty by hand (which is....a choice). The bins would need to be serviced more often (which means more sanitation workers, which means more taxes). And...the kicker:

“What are the implications for parking, is there even enough curb space in New York City to be able to accommodate the number of bins that are required?” Tisch said.

- Duggan, "StreetsBlogNYC"

And this, fundamentally, is why the rats win. Because people, the government, etc, are unwilling to make the tradeoff between higher taxes, less parking, and fewer rats. The rats are succeeding because we, humans, are failing to work collectively.

Where have you been? 

William James famously wrote: "We feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble." it true? Can we be afraid or anxious because our hearts or racing? Or does the head have control over the heart? A new study in mice shows that a racing heart CAN cause an anxious mind.

Enjoyed speaking with Sabrina Imbler about their memoir for Science for the People. We had a great conversation about writing, creativity, and sea creatures, of course. Who doesn't want to talk about sea creatures?

Maybe...we should not trust the free market to prepare us for the next pandemic? Maybe? Too much to ask?

I have found my soul mate, and it's this person who acknowledges how AWESOME pop tarts are for endurance activities (hiking, running, etc). Because they are. They are the perfect food.

Where have I been?

Or where WILL I be? LOOK OUT EAST COAST!! I'm coming for you! Or Boston and to NC.

This was a nice write up of the talk that I gave at MIT a few weeks ago, in which I talked about being a blacksmith and making horse shoes.