Trash Troubles on New York City Streets

DORIS ROSENBLUM'S path to work can be called the New York City survival course. She must step over the muck, hold her breath for record lengths, and make her way with the prowess of a combat soldier around discarded food littering the sidewalks. Garbage overflow is not new to New York, but these days it comes from an unexpected source. The garbage is from scavengers who are rummaging for cans, bottles, magazines, clothing, and discarded appliances - virtually anything that can be restored, resold, or recycled.

``There isn't one building that doesn't have plastic bags cut open in front of it,'' says Ms. Rosenblum who lives in Manhattan. ``Everyone of them is flowing garbage out onto the street.''

The shredding of plastic bags for cans and bottles is principally the result of a New York state bottle bill that placed a 5-cent deposit on cans and bottles. That bill successfully eliminated 3 percent of the city's garbage from reaching the landfill. But it has meant that scavengers go through bags looking for unredeemed cans.

The garbage on the streets has caused more residents to complain about the rat population.

``We believe there is an increase in the rat population, especially in the lower-income neighborhoods,'' says Howard Reiser, a Public Health Department spokesman.

According to a report on city garbage called Project Scorecard, as of February 1990 only 71 percent of New York City streets were rated acceptably clean. In February, the streets in Brooklyn were the dirtiest with only 58 percent of considered clean, a decline from 64 percent a year ago. The small borough of Staten Island, however, topped the list with 86 percent of its streets considered clean, the same as last year.

With recycling hitting the streets, the garbage problem may get worse before it gets better. New York City passed a recycling law in July 1989 that aims to have all residents recycling by 1991. Since July, recycling has involved more than 1 million homes and New York City is recycling more than 800 tons of garbage a day.

The law mandates separation of paper, metal, and glass from nonrecyclable garbage and will eventually carry fines for noncompliance. These measures will ease the burden on landfills. But in cities they may exacerbate an already critical space problem. In New York City apartments are so small that sidewalks have become storage sites.

``Some of the problems stem from people illegally storing garbage on the street. Then the homeless search through the bags,'' says Julia Fitzgerald, a city employee.

Ms. Fitzgerald says that institutions are major culprits in street garbage storage. She also blames erratic sanitation pickup schedules and a lack of communication between the sanitation department and building superintendents. Although storing garbage on the sidewalk carries fines from $50 to $300, Fitzgerald says enforcement is poor.

Scavenging is also against the law in New York City and carries fines from $50 to $300. But the city issued only 20 violations in 1989.

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