Trash talk: New York City has finally discovered the wheelie bin – and it only cost $4m | Arwa Mahdawi

The revolution will not be televised. Unless it’s Mayor Eric Adams’s Trash Revolution, of course. In which case a press conference will be held, music blasted, and every camera crew in the five boroughs invited.

On Monday the mayor of New York, with Jessica Tisch, the sanitation commissioner, by his side, unveiled New York City’s first official trash bin. The mayor wheeled the new NYC Bin down Gracie Mansion’s driveway and, with his characteristic swagger, demonstrated how the innovative new technology works: you open the lid and you put the rubbish in. It’s highly intuitive technology.

“Today, we are tossing even more black bags into the dustbin of history and taking the next step forward in our ‘Trash Revolution’,” Adams proudly proclaimed after the demonstration. For years New Yorkers have put their rubbish out in loose bags but, starting in November, all small buildings will have to use these bins. The new rules will mean the city will be containerizing approximately 70% of its 14bn annual pounds of trash, according to Adams. Which is good news for New York noses and bad news for rats.

Perhaps you’re wondering if you’re missing something here. Did the mayor of the richest city in the world really just show off a wheelie bin like it’s some sort of newfangled innovation? This is a city whose police department has a budget of $5.8bn and a bunch of crime-fighting robot dogs that cost $75,000 each. Isn’t it just a tad embarrassing that they’ve only just realized that you can put rubbish in a container?

Large swaths of the internet certainly seem to think so; the NYC Bin has become the butt of a lot of jokes online. Having done an extensive analysis of social media I can exclusively reveal that it seems to be Brits who find the NYC Bin most hilarious. This is for two reasons. The first is that a Brit will jump at any opportunity to feel superior to an American. Due to the UK endlessly embarrassing itself on the world stage, these opportunities have become increasingly fleeting over the years. You’ve got to take your wins, and your bins, where you can.

The second reason is that Brits are obsessed with rubbish. Wheelie bins occupy a large amount of space in the national consciousness; they’re a British icon. People swim in them (OK, maybe just a couple of very drunk people), people complain about them, columnists will jump at any excuse possible to talk about the ins and outs of rubbish collection. I am not exaggerating here: even the Economist has written about the phenomenon. “In most countries, rubbish makes headlines only when it is not collected, and stinking sacks lie heaped on the streets,” it said in a 2010 piece. “In Britain bins are a front-page staple.” They chalk this up to “national character”.

Americans often seem befuddled by our bin obsession. Indeed, I conducted a little ethnographic research on this myself when I raced down the stairs on Monday to breathlessly tell my American wife about the new wheelie bins. “What’s a wheelie bin?” she asked. And to be fair, when you think about it, “wheelie bin” is a quintessentially British phrase. It sounds like one of the amusing British town names that Americans love making fun of. This train stops at Boggy Bottom, Cockermouth, Lickey End, Barton in the Beans, and Wheelie Bin! Still, it says a lot about the American national character that they don’t even have a special word for a bin with wheels.

New York’s signature trash bags. Photograph: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

But I am digressing here. I think what we all want to know is why on earth it took so long for New York’s Trash Revolution to get to the “wheelie-bins-are-mobilizing” stage? Well, to be fair, there have been other phases to this revolution. As the New York Times points out, the city required trash to go in Oscar-the-Grouch-style metal bins until the early 1970s; the shift to plastic bags was seen as a revolution in itself. More broadly, revolutions don’t come cheap. Somebody has got to get paid!

In this latest chapter, that somebody appears to have been McKinsey & Company. (You know, the consulting firm that played a key role in the opioid crisis.) In 2022, the department of sanitation and the city’s Economic Development Corporation awarded a $4m contract to McKinsey to figure out how to deal with trash and design a citywide pilot program. According to the New York Times, it seems that the idea to commission a consultancy came from the sanitation commissioner: Jessica Tisch, granddaughter of the billionaire investor Laurence Tisch.

Did the city really need to spend millions of dollars so that a bunch of highly paid management consultants could make a PowerPoint presentation saying “you might think about putting your loose rubbish in a bin”? Some New York City workers were skeptical. The councilwoman Sandy Nurse, who was chair of the committee on sanitation and solid waste management at the time, for example, questioned the need to shell so much money out.

“There was a body of work done… [with] a lot of these ideas that is sitting there, and could easily be looked at again,” Nurse told Gothamist in 2022. “Hiring McKinsey seems a little unnecessary at best. The city should be developing this kind of expertise in-house, at city agencies.”

While that’s valid criticism, I’m sure that we can all agree, having looked at the shiny new NYC Bin, that the money on McKinsey was well spent. Still, I do hope the mayor of New York doesn’t rest on his laurels. If we really want to take the Trash Revolution to the next level, the question isn’t where we put our rubbish but how we make less of it. How do we get people to stop consuming so much and how do we get corporations to crack down on unnecessary packaging? I look forward to hearing McKinsey’s $4m thoughts on that.

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Arwa Mahdawi