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NYC: Trash bags out, bins in


Now for a story about fighting an all-too-common urban scourge - rats. For decades, New Yorkers have thrown out their garbage in plastic bags on city sidewalks. They haven't used bins until now. City officials are starting to require more hard-sided trash containers. And as Austin Cope reports, they hope it will slow the city's growing rat population.

AUSTIN COPE, BYLINE: It's a Friday night in Manhattan, and Alton Mitchell and I are standing in front of a row of apartments with a big stack of black trash bags out in front. You can hear a few very faint, high-pitched squeaks in the background.

ALTON MITCHELL: Right now, we see just a bunch of garbage that's out there. And we see - we hear rats actually making noise. So they're talking and saying, hey, we're being on the radio, too.

COPE: They're actually not quite close enough to the mic.

MITCHELL: They're making a lot of noise, which is very scary because if you walk down the block, you never know. They're running right across your foot, and who wants to get bit by a rat?

COPE: But what does that have to do with the trash bags?

MITCHELL: A lot because they're inside those bags. They are - you know, you're scared to walk by because they are in - they're eating whatever is inside the bags.

COPE: So what would you do if you were walking by these bags right now?

MITCHELL: I'll cross the street. I'll walk in the street.

COPE: Really?

MITCHELL: I do. I walk in the street.

COPE: Really?

MITCHELL: You know, but then you don't want to cross over to the other side because there's bags on the other side, too.

COPE: This is exactly the kind of thing officials here are hoping to solve. New Yorkers put out around 44 million pounds of trash each day. Since the late '60s, most of it has gone right onto city sidewalks like this one. New Yorker Ocean Thomas says it's no wonder there's so many rats.

OCEAN THOMAS: When you visit other towns - right? - you - one of the first things you notice, being a native New Yorker, is that, wow, these towns - so clean. And it doesn't stink. And the thing that stands out the most is that, one, the trash is not all over the place. And if it is trash cans that are out, they're contained.

COPE: Now, the city's started making people put their waste in bins. As of the past couple of months, large businesses have to do it, and so do restaurants, grocery stores and other places that serve food. Next March, all businesses will have to. Private residents don't yet, but officials say more rules are on the way. Finding where to put all this garbage isn't necessarily easy. Victor Edwards lives in a neighborhood where the city's testing out new containers in the streets.

VICTOR EDWARDS: If you look across the street where cars are parked, you will see that it takes up approximately four parking spaces.

COPE: Edwards leads a community board that represents residents' opinions. He hopes the city can plan for more than just the pests.

EDWARDS: We definitely want to get rid of rats. I'm not saying I want to live with rats. But by the same token, I want to take into consideration all the other factors - physically challenged people who have to carry these bags now and lift them up and put them in, our seniors the same thing and then parking.

COPE: Officials hope to balance out larger bins in the street with smaller ones on the sidewalk, but they say there'll be some trade-offs. Danielle Mills lives in the Bronx and owns a car. She's OK with containers in the street since sometimes, people just throw their trash there.

DANIELLE MILLS: It's taking up parking anyway. So I would prefer the bins to be there. And I don't have a problem with sacrificing parking to make sure that, you know, we keeping the streets clean and cleared from garbage.

COPE: And for Tameka Jordan, it really gets back to the rodents.

TAMEKA JORDAN: No one wants the little Mickey Mouse in their homes. I'm very afraid of them, very afraid.

COPE: She hasn't had any at her place, but she's seen some near where she works. So as more bins go in, she's glad the rats will have a harder time reaching their next meal. For NPR News, I'm Austin Cope in New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Austin Cope