A cigarette butt, a plastic cup or an empty can: at first glance they look like harmless objects. Separated they are, but together and lying in the street they can generate a cascading effect that ranges from rat infestations to lowering the property values of a neighborhood and causing flash floods, the last deadly enemy of New York. This is what Nicole de Santis, director of the Clean Bushwick Initiative, points out, a neighborhood organization that has been collecting rubbish from the sidewalks of the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn since 2016.
Earlier this month the blows of Tropical Storm Ida left at least 50 dead on the east coast of the United States, 17 of them in New York. The Empire State City has never seen so much rain; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had to declare a state of emergency and described the torrential rains as a “historic weather event.”RELATED
Obviously, the empty Starbucks glasses and the ice cream wrappers or bags of potatoes that clogged the sewers were not the only culprits in this catastrophe, where the climate crisis played a fundamental role. Each degree Celsius of warming causes the air to contain 7% more water and that translates into storms triggering greater amounts of rain. Furthermore, most of the city’s infrastructure dates from the 20th century. But garbage plays an important role in floods.
“The garbage in the upper part of the sewers prevents and delays that the water enters the drain. Without a doubt, I believe that the garbage in the streets can contribute to increase the impact of the floods”, explains the commissioner of the Department of Sanitation of New York City, Edward Grayson. However, the expert emphasizes that in this case –there was more than 3 inches (7.62 centimeters) of rain in an hour–, even with pristine streets, there would have been consequences.
“They looked like images taken from the movie Tomorrow”recalls the Democratic candidate for the council of District 7, Shaun Abreu, referring to the video that went through social networks the night of September 1 in which it was seen as a cascade of rainwater came down the stairs of the subway station from Harlem 145th Street.
The politician points out that it is the second time in a month that the station in his district has been flooded. “The perfect storm is taking place, on the one hand there is a sewer system that does not have the required capacity to face extreme rains and on the surface there is a lot of garbage that is blocking the path of the water to the sewers.”
One of the worst hit areas in Bushwick the night of the flood was Knickerbocker Avenue. At night you could see a huge amount of garbage floating down the long street and the next morning, with the streets almost dry, piles of waste covered the sewers of the avenue. That’s not unusual in Brooklyn, according to De Santis, since at the weekly clean-up events he organizes, the gutters are always “completely covered in trash.”
In the almost six years that the activist has been collecting garbage in her spare time, she has seen no improvement. He says that as the city grows, the garbage is spreading. The pandemic did not help, as one of its side effects was budget cuts in the city’s Sanitation Department. “Things have changed. For example, there is an abandoned car on my block for three or four months, with the windshield overflowing with fines. I think that before the pandemic the tow truck would have already taken it away.”
Despite the fact that garbage is a common denominator for the whole city, De Santis underlines the difference that is seen between the neighborhoods based on the income of the neighbors. “Those who live in neighborhoods where people struggle to pay rent, put food on their tables, and maybe even undocumented, are not going to call 311 (the city number to make complaints). Instead, in In neighborhoods with higher income, people complain or have the resources to pay for extra cleaning services outside of the city budget. “
By law, all owners have to clean the half meter of sidewalk in front of their doors or gates every day. “I would love to machine clean every street in New York every day, but we still need people to do their part. We need all property owners to fulfill their obligation and if they live near a sewer, make sure it is clear, “Grayson emphasizes.
Both Grayson and De Santis agree that the solution to this problem not only depends on giving more money to the Department of Sanitation – a division that this year once again had a larger budget and was able to hire 840 new employees – but it is also in the civic education. “Garbage in the street is a crime that can be avoided. You don’t need to throw it away, you can wait until you come across a trash can,” he says.
It’s been more than a year since New York banned plastic bags. In all of New York State, about 23 billion were used a year.
“Before I used to have a garbage bag just to put plastic bags, there were a lot of them on the street. But since this mandate was implemented there are hardly any. You could do the same with coffee glasses or plastic bottles. that people carry their cloth bag could take their cup or reusable water bottles, “says De Santis.
The activist is hopeful that the increase in torrential rains will be accompanied by stricter measures. “I think that when something directly affects people they will always be more likely to take it seriously. As a friend says, there are a couple of weirdos, like us, who speak and act for the good of all even if the problem is not. It affects us, and then there are the rest of the people, who only do something when the problem reaches their backyard. ”