Labor Day weekend is often about beach trips and cookouts, the air tinged with the smell of sunscreen and barbecue. But on the olfactory flip side, another tradition follows: hot, putrid mountains of trash.
With no residential garbage collection on Sunday or Monday, the inevitable three-day-weekend trash pileups have spawned a post-Labor Day ritual among New York City’s sanitation workers. It’s known as the “holiday chase” — where extra workers are put on collection routes until the weekend’s accumulated refuse is finally gathered.
But this Labor Day, the Sanitation Department will try something new.
For the first time in recent memory, the city will schedule residential trash collection on the holiday, using a pool of Sanitation Department volunteers.
The move is born of political imperative: Through Aug. 28, the city’s nonemergency 311 help line had received 25,754 complaints about trash dirtying sidewalks and streets, up 23 percent from 2021 and more than double than during the same period in 2020, when the pandemic was in full swing.
Mayor Eric Adams has vowed to tackle the problem head-on. The budget he negotiated with the New York City Council put $22 million toward emptying corner litter baskets more often, $7.5 million toward targeting known litter problem spots and $4.5 million toward cleaning vacant lots. The city has recently begun experimenting with trash containerization, a practice already in use in other countries. The mayor has resurrected twice-a-week street cleaning in many neighborhoods.
Mr. Adams has also made a point of publicly targeting abandoned dining sheds, which can act as repositories for litter and illicit activity, even donning a hard hat and wielding a sledgehammer to help tear one down earlier in August.
“People are tired of the trash, they’re tired of the rats, they’re tired of the abandoned outdoor dining sheds, and they just don’t want the garbage around it,” Mr. Adams said at the time.
Since the extra litter basket funding went into effect July 1, complaints about overflowing baskets have fallen more than 60 percent, the Sanitation Department says.
But the quantity of trash produced on three-day weekends remains a daunting challenge, even more daunting than standard-issue Monday piles of garbage.
Jessica Tisch, the city’s new sanitation commissioner, said the week following the long July 4 weekend had been “unacceptably dirty,” and so is the city generally.
“The city is dirtier postpandemic than it was prepandemic,” she said — a condition she ascribed to budget cuts in sanitation services during the most urgent days of the health crisis.
On an average Monday in the past four weeks, New York City sanitation workers picked up about 9,300 tons of trash, compared with 7,000 tons on an average Thursday.
Last Labor Day came after Hurricane Ida inundated New York City, interrupting trash collection. In 2020, sanitation workers hauled nearly 12,000 tons of residential trash on the Tuesday after Labor Day. By the following Tuesday, trash collection returned to normal.
Ms. Tisch is hopeful that this new initiative will be cost-neutral, because the extra overtime expenses on Labor Day might be offset by less overtime during the week after Labor Day.
If enough trash can be collected to substantively limit the “holiday chase,” the city plans to adopt a similar protocol for all Monday federal holidays moving forward, provided there is no significant snowfall in the forecast.
But it still remains to be seen if enough New Yorkers will put out their trash on Labor Day, and how many sanitation workers will sign up for the Labor Day shift.
Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, said Ms. Tisch’s experiment is worth a try.
“Listen, I think it’s good,” he said. “Why would it be bad? It’s not bad. It’s good. The object is to get the trash off the streets.”
Then again, Mr. Nespoli said, he does not know how many sanitation workers will work on Labor Day. Roughly 6,300 of the city’s 10,000 sanitation workers pick up trash. The city is aiming for 800 volunteers to work on Labor Day.
“Nowadays people are thinking differently,” Mr. Nespoli said. “They’re thinking, you know what, maybe they want more time with their family.”
Grace Ashford contributed reporting.