THE BLOG
09/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Summer in the City: The Sweet Smell of Garbage

In the early summer months, the big news in garbage was Naples: the demand for garbage disposal had overwhelmed the city's resources, and mountains of garbage were rotting on city streets. Before I left for my vacation in Naples in July, I heard several snide garbage-related comments from my friends. But in fact, the garbage crisis was in evidence nowhere in Naples, or at least nowhere near the historical center of town, which is where I spent most of my time. Naples delivered the gritty and chaotic charm I had been promised by all the guidebooks, but there was not a stray trash bag in sight.

The real garbage warning, however, should have been about my next trip after Naples: my move back home to New York City after two years living abroad. It turns out the only difference between New York and Naples is that Naples admits it is having a garbage problem. New Yorkers, on the other hand, are spending yet another summer stewing complacently in the stench of their own trash.

Having my German boyfriend here in New York has made me acutely aware of the problem, since he points it out to me at least three times a day. As we stroll the quaint streets of Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn (which, incidentally, remind him of a town in the Wild West), he can't help but point out the sweet, sticky smell of melting garbage and to admonish New York for having no sustainable system for taking care of its waste.

I have to admit that it is true. The pungent smell of New York in the summer was something I, too, took for granted before moving away. If asked, I might have even chalked it up fondly to New York's rough-and-tumble character, the same way people talk about the traffic in Naples. (What is more exhilarating for a tourist than the leap of faith off the curb in Naples?)

But I now believe there is another way. Ubiquitous in Frankfurt, Germany, for example, are large bins, easily accessible to homes and businesses alike, which are clearly designated for various garbage and recycling purposes, and which are made of a thick, sturdy plastic and include tightly closing lids. Garbage lives happily in these bins, all but forgotten until it is disposed of by the city's smoothly functioning garbage service.

I have never totally understood New York's garbage disposal system, but to my unschooled eye, it seems haphazard. Most apartment buildings have bins, but they are often unwieldy or missing lids, and tend to be overwhelmed by messy piles of disorganized junk. Restaurants and cafes, for some reason I don't understand, seem to be bringing their trash out every night in large black garbage bags and leaving it on the street. Unnameable liquids often leak from the holes in the bags - a kind of garbage cocktail that combines the worst of everything consumed in a New York City night. Whence the dumpsters and garbage bins that would make this a cleaner job? Are restaurant workers supposed to be disposing of bare naked trash bags, or have they simply gotten lazy?

(And, while we're on the subject, is there anyone else who is still confused about New York's recycling rules? What, for instance, exactly constitutes recyclable plastic?)

For all of its wonderfulness, there are several areas in which New York could improve its systems and services and aspire to be a little more like some of Europe's more people-friendly cities. (Have you been to Paris lately? There are new city-sponsored bicycles, available to all for 1 euro per day!) But this garbage issue seems particularly fundamental: New York smells bad, and the situation could be improved by a few simple measures.

Most intriguing of all, though, is that no one seems to mind. It is a strange contradiction for a city that is so highly civilized in so many other ways. I'm beginning to wonder if this contradiction is at the heart of the matter: perhaps set against the changing face of New York in recent years (increasing numbers of anonymous high rise apartment towers, shopping malls, and chain stores), New Yorkers retain their scruffy identity through the unique and resilient smell of their garbage.