Garbage: Solving the last meter problem

New York City is getting trash bins. This is big news.

If you haven’t been there, NYC’s trash mostly goes out to the curb in bags. Humans then swing the bags into trucks for disposal. There are several problems with the system, such as rats, and the fact that lifting and swinging is a hard motion on the human body, and we’re not built to do it a thousand times a day. The bags break, and garbage ends up everywhere. If you’re like me, and have always lived in towns and cities with bin collection, this seems unimaginable. In the suburbs, we have trucks that interface with the bins to pick them up, shake them into the hopper, and set them down again. No one has to lift it at all. Here in a denser part of the city, a person walks along our alleys and lines the bins up with the truck, so the lifting is automated, but you don’t need as much room for the truck.

It’s really easy to make fun of NYC’s infrastructure, and how backward it seems that they’re just now getting around to bins. The truth is that they have some real legacy problems – it’s a big, old, dense city. Every time you try to make a change, there are reasons that it hasn’t been made before. Some of those reasons include the fact that you’re going to displace and inconvenience a large number of people, that it’s going to be expensive, and that everyone is used to the way it works now.

Gee, that sounds a lot like every IT Transformation project ever, doesn’t it?

It’s not useful to insult NYC for the way they did things, or be sarcastic about the fact that they are doing it the “modern way” now. They’re doing what they can, with what they have, with constraints the rest of us don’t face. And it turns out that we’re not at the cutting edge. The Netherlands, and apparently, Clearwater, Florida, are using a system that looks like normal municipal garbage cans and feeds into a giant underground vault that is emptied by crane. Why aren’t we all doing that? It’s much more modern. Why aren’t we using near-infrared to sort plastics?

The important part is not how far behind someone is, but how well a solution works given their constraints. Can we make an improvement that is worth the disruption?

Progressive delivery isn’t about being right, it’s about heading the right way. Incremental improvement is still improvement. Waiting until something is perfect is why so few people who know how to use Hugo actually post on their blogs. NYC’s bins are an improvement over bags. Maybe in your organization, your improvement is more automation, or better alignment. You don’t have to get it all right at the same time for it to be useful and meaningful. Even this bin rollout is phased, with restaurants going earlier, and medium-sized housing later.


* The people I’ve met who are the absolute best at waste reduction as a group are folks so rural they have to take their own trash to the dump. It’s a real pain!

** Did you know that when MLK Jr. was assassinated, he was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike? Garbage has been political for a long time.