New Yorkers may not think much about the 23,000 steel litter baskets scattered around the city. “It’s a piece of street furniture that we take for granted,” says Robin Nagle, the in-house anthropologist at the New York City Department of Sanitation and an urban studies professor at New York University.
In use since the 1930s, the bins are ubiquitous but problematic: They weigh 30 pounds when empty, which means that garbage collectors have to lift as much as 100 pounds when they empty them. (In fact, garbage collectors hold one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, with a fatal injury rate of 33 deaths per every 100,000 workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.) The wide opening of the mesh bin allows trash to blow away and invites residents and business owners to dump bulky waste inside. The city’s notorious rats easily climb in and out of the baskets. And their aesthetics are not to everyone’s liking. As one reader put it to New York Magazine in 1972, “it’s really pretty ugly.”