Talking Trash

NY Magazine’s Intelligencer has a great interview with the head of NYC’s DSNY. Jessica Tish answers it all below:

I want to read you a quote from a Streetsblog article that came out in March of last year: “In conversations with policy experts, architects, elected officials, and former city workers, one word came up repeatedly to describe the city’s relationship with garbage — inertia. The greatest and richest city in the world is being embarrassed by other municipalities when it comes to nearly every facet of how we generate, sort, store, and recycle more than 12,000 tons of waste every day.” 

You were hired a month after that article came out. Did you feel that inertia when you got to the job, and to what extent has it had an impact on what you’ve tried to do so far?
I absolutely felt that inertia, and overcoming that inertia has actually brought a lot of the energy to this department over the past year, because we want to do everything we can to change the paradigm in New York City. I have long said that for the past decade or two, most cities around the world have really innovated in the ways that they handle and manage their waste. And New York City really hasn’t. So in a short period of time, we are trying to basically play catch-up.

One thing that’s historically been an issue is a lack of interaction between city agencies like the Department of Sanitation and the Department of Transportation. Before this job, you ran the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Did that experience help you in terms of setting up better coordination with Sanitation?
When Mayor Adams came in, he was very clear with all of us that he wanted to take a one-city approach. What I have seen and felt over the past year that I’ve been working in this administration is a very different paradigm vis-à-vis how agencies work together. And I’ll give you a few examples.

There were certain parts of the city that really look and feel like city streets but technically aren’t considered city streets: medians, greenways, the service roads next to highways, underpasses, overpasses. But there was this old agreement dating back several decades that took the jurisdiction for cleaning those parts of the city away from the Department of Sanitation and gave them to other agencies that weren’t positioned to clean them. And Mayor Adams came in and basically tore off that old bureaucratic agreement and said, “No, we need to give jurisdiction and responsibility for cleaning these areas to the agency whose core competency is cleaning.” And I felt a lot of support and partnership from, for example, the Department of Transportation, the Parks Department, in helping us ramp up and in transitioning that responsibility over.

More recently, the department got jurisdiction to clean the highways, which in my opinion were absolutely filthy. For the past month and a half, we’ve had about a hundred sanitation workers a day out there doing a full makeover. And that too was an interagency effort. The Department of Transportation has been incredibly helpful in getting us started up, both in terms of the equipment we use and helping us with routing. So I think you’re seeing Mayor Adams’s one-city approach in action.

How do you measure progress on stuff like this? We’re obviously talking about an enormous area and tons of workers. Do you have stats for garbage the way CompStat tracks crime?
Oh, I love that you just asked that question. My background is at the NYPD. I spent 12 years there, and then two years during the pandemic running the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. When I showed up at Sanitation, one of the things that I wanted to do was really define metrics for success and have this be a much more data-driven operation than it has been historically. And so about two or three months ago, we created our own CompStat at the Department of Sanitation. It’s called TrashDash.

And it is very much modeled after CompStat. What we do is we take, for example, 311 complaints about miscollections or dirty conditions and we look at the numbers citywide, by borough and by district — week-to-date, the 28-day period, year-to-date. We publish it every Monday morning at 11 a.m., just like they do with CompStat at the NYPD. And every week on Thursdays, we bring a different borough in and the executives here grill each borough on their stats. Some of the stats are customer-related — what are our customers telling us? And other stats are workforce efficiency. So, yes, we have definitely become a much more data-driven organization, and we’re using data, different sources of data, to inform how we think about our performance. But in sanitation, some of it is very qualitative. We have great before-and-after pictures that I see every day as they’re cleaning the highways. They recently finished the BQE, as an example. And with some of those things, a picture really says a thousand words.

Though I was in a cab to JFK the other day and noticed lots of trash in green spaces and everywhere else along the route.
Yeah. And we’re doing both. We’re doing the street sweeping on the roads, but we also have several teams a day doing litter-picking in those green spaces. I think you were probably driving on the Nassau Expressway. We have teams there for the next several weeks now that we’ve finished the BQE and the Major Deegan and a few others. That’s an example of a place where people who come and visit New York City from out of town and fly into JFK — it’s their first impression of the city.

It’s bad. First JFK itself, which is slowly getting better, and then —
It’s got to look as good as New Yorkers do.

There are also so many in-between spaces in the city — areas that may border multiple buildings, but it’s not always clear whose responsibility they are. And that seems to be where trash piles up the most. 
It is the city’s responsibility to clean the parts of the city that the city owns: the streets, the overpasses, the underpasses, the highways, the greenways. And I think what you’ve seen from this administration is the mayor has really invested in doing just that, and the Department of Sanitation is stepping up to the plate and getting it done. But cleanliness in New York City is a shared responsibility. The Department of Sanitation has 10,000 employees and we clean a lot of different spaces. The sidewalks happen to be the responsibility of the property owners. So property owners are responsible for keeping the sidewalks cleaned.

To read the rest of the Q+A, click the link, below:

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