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New fleet of fume-free trash collectors heads to Central Park

New fleet of fume-free trash collectors heads to Central Park

(ART ADV: With photos.) NEW YORK — Looking like fugitives from a factory floor, at least 1,000 ...

(ART ADV: With photos.)

NEW YORK — Looking like fugitives from a factory floor, at least 1,000 55-gallon drums dotted Central Park in the 1980s, marring what may be the greatest invented landscape in America.

They were big — not to mention unsightly — but not big enough to contain all the cans, bottles, cups, napkins, newspapers, magazines, paper bags, pizza boxes, hot-dog wrappers and other refuse from 12 million visitors a year. Trash piled up in them and around them.

To help keep up with the overflowing cans, rear-loading garbage trucks lumbered back and forth like dinosaurs across lawns and meadows, hills and valleys, paths and walkways. It was a brutish way to treat what was supposed to be a green gem. No wonder the park felt out of control.

Today, Central Park is a far different place. The number of visitors has soared to 42 million visitors annually. They generate 2,000 tons of trash and 58 tons of recyclables a year.

Despite all that garbage, it is possible to drive around the sprawling park with Nick Marotta, the operations coordinator for night operations, and count the pieces of stray litter on two hands. (What he finds, he picks up with a long-armed pincer.) In place of 55-gallon drums and 68-gallon plastic bins are neat arrays of handsome, patented, coated-aluminum receptacles with 32-gallon plastic bags inside. The cans are colored black for garbage, gray for bottles and cans, and green for paper and cardboard.

Instead of being serviced by ungainly rear-loaders, the receptacles are emptied day and night by workers scooting around in 86 small carts. They take the bags to one of eight pickup areas in the 843-acre park, from which the bags are hauled to transfer stations in the Bronx and Queens.

The trash management system developed by the Central Park Conservancy — a private nonprofit that manages the park under contract with New York City and has transformed the park into a verdant oasis — has worked well enough to be emulated at Crotona Park in the Bronx. The system is coming to more parks, too.

Nevertheless, it has posed its own problems. Most of the carts are gasoline-powered, with all the noise and fumes that implies.

But if you listen closely — and you will have to listen very closely — relief will soon be at hand when a new fleet of 52 Cushman electric carts, 48 two-seaters and four four-seaters, hums its way through the park.

“We’re looking forward to it,” said Marotta, a conservancy employee, as his old cart chugged and coughed while he inspected the park for cleanliness, picked up litter here and there, answered visitors’ questions and gently admonished trespassers on closed lawns or dog-walkers whose pets were off the leash.

The new carts and infrastructure — principally a charging station at the 79th Street maintenance yard — cost $1.94 million.


Arnold Saks, 85, a prominent graphic designer and a donor to the conservancy through the A & J Saks Foundation, spurred the electrification program for a straightforward reason. He bicycles through the park almost every day.

“A couple of years ago, I started getting a little annoyed with the smelly and noisy gasoline carts,” Saks said. He recommended the switch to electric carts.

“We promised $1 million in the beginning when we came up with the concept,” Saks said. “When the conservancy carefully priced the program’s cost, they discovered the $1.94 million actual cost and they then said they would need an additional donor to get the project built and into operation.”

“I decided I wouldn’t live long enough,” Saks said. The foundation donated the remaining $940,000 to get the project going sooner rather than later.


The arrival of electric carts is merely the latest in a 35-year evolution of the conservancy’s trash management practices.

“Back in the 1970s and early ‘80s, the staff was doing more damage to the park than good,” said Douglas Blonsky, the park administrator and the president and chief executive of the conservancy. That was when every one of the hundreds of drums were served by big trucks.


In 1981, limits were placed on the drums. They were completely removed from Central Park by 1995, supplanted by wire-mesh baskets and plastic bins. That year, 49 managed zones were created, each with a superintending gardener accountable for the maintenance and cleanliness of a given area.

Then, starting in the late 1990s, visitors were encouraged to carry their own refuse out of playgrounds and heavily used lawns and meadows. The “carry in, carry out” strategy was extended to woodland areas in 2008. As a consequence, the rat population diminished. (When was the last time you read a sentence like that?)

Without rats around to assert a superior claim to humans’ leftover food, the Eastern chipmunk — a voluble and innately more appealing rodent — has returned to the north end of the park, Blonsky said.


Recycling of cans and bottles from the Great Lawn began in 2007 and was instituted throughout the park in 2010.

An aesthetic leap forward occurred in 2013. Custom receptacles, with distinctive slats made of a coated aluminum alloy and tilted as if the cans were in movement, were installed in 700 to 800 spots around the park. They have been awarded three patents, in the name of Blonsky and Anthony Deen, the director of physical design at ESI Design.


A frame inside the barrel of each receptacle holds an easily changeable 32-gallon bag, nested inside a secondary, protective bag. The hinged lid looks like a lens aperture. Openings at the top range from 5 to 12 inches.

“The glass/bottle lid can fit a large, plastic cola bottle, the drink of choice during our hot summer,” Deen wrote in an email. “The paper lid can accept a pizza box folded in half, or a folded Sunday edition of The New York Times; and the trash lid is sized for a nice basketball-style toss, and will fit anything up to a regulation NBA ball.”


The cans have proved to be satisfactorily rat-proof, Marotta said, but not completely raccoon-proof. (As if anything could ever be completely raccoon-proof.) They were designed before the masked bandits began to proliferate in Central Park.

Still, the conservancy’s zoned management system has won the endorsement of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. Mitchell Silver, the commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said that a pilot program at Crotona Park, which began in May, has already resulted in improved cleanliness.


He said the agency hoped to reproduce its success in Fort Greene Park, McCarren Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn; St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx; John V. Lindsay East River Park in Manhattan; and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. These are parks without the kind of deep-pocketed benefactors who support the work of the Central Park Conservancy.

“The mayor is committed to equity,” Silver said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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