Subway trash: an odyssey


Tatiana Spencer was in high school when she was waiting with her friends for the E train at the 71st-Continental Avenue subway station. Mitchell and Stacey were arguing. “He was a lover-boy,” Spencer said, ”so it was probably about a girl.”

Spencer, now 29, recounted how Stacey tore the bag of fresh Wendy’s chicken nuggets from Mitchell’s hands and threw it  onto the tracks. “I will always remember how hungry my friend was and his lunch ended up on the train tracks,” she said.

New York City Transit hauls away tons of trash each year, and if what you can see on the tracks is any indication, much of it is newspapers, candy wrappers, and bottles from both hard and soft drinks. Like archaeologists sifting the remains of an ancient civilization, the subway rider can seek out the story of a great city in the trash that accumulates on its train tracks. Like Mitchell’s chicken nuggets, every piece of trash tells a story.

“Garbage archaeologist William Rathje was able to tell more about a household by its trash than the census,” said Max Liboiron, an assistant professor of culture and technology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland who runs the Discard Studies blog. But she sees an obstacle to discovering the story of the subway’s trash:  “Household trash is bound up in one bag. The mix of trash on tracks or bins in a subway provides much, much less conclusive information.”

Still, the astute rider can imagine that the cane floating in a puddle on the elevated tracks on the F line in Brooklyn might be that of an elderly person taking the train to visit a relative in another borough, or perhaps an injured patient traveling to therapy.

A diaper on the J tracks at Essex Street might have fallen out a baby carriage. Or, a flustered mother might have thrown it there intentionally in a moment of frustration with her crying child, in disregard for public hygiene.

Anna DiTucci-Cappiello, a 21-year-old Brooklyn College student from Marine Park, takes the L and the Q trains to Manhattan. “I was at Newkirk Avenue–the Q and B stop there–recently, and there were like, two or three softballs on the tracks,” she said. “I don’t know like if everyone decided to just drop them, if this school team lost a few.”

A softball is a pretty strong indicator of an athletic straphanger, but it may be a little harder to identify your average subway rider by the trash he or she leaves behind.

“Like most analysis, making conclusions from one data point is not considered valid,”  Liboiron said. “You might get a general idea of these things you mentioned, but you can’t be sure. You would just have a hypothesis.”

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg investigated the agency’s garbage collection and found that an abundance of trash does not mean an abundance of data. “I’ve talked to several folks in the trash hauling side of the subway system,” he said.  “And they say we simply don’t track refuse in any way that would provide any interesting details.”

New York Public Interest Research Group’s Straphangers Campaign, which has taken an annual “Shmutz Survey” of the subway system every fall since 1997, doesn’t have specifics on the kinds of garbage that riders leave behind.

trashCate Contino, a Straphangers Campaign coordinator for NYPIRG, said that the organization doesn’t even look at the tracks when doing the Shmutz Survey. “Focusing on the floors and seats is what’s most important to riders,” she said. “The MTA actually has a very complicated system of measuring the platform environment.”

NYPIRG explains its own methods for determining which lines were the cleanest and which were the dirtiest in an online white paper called Methodology:Shmutz Subway Cleanliness Survey, 2011 and 2013.

Although NYPIRG’s rating system notes things like open food containers, and the occasional “one or two sticky dry spots,” it doesn’t go so far as identifying the Wendy’s chicken nuggets or the softballs.

While Liboiron challenged the idea that litter can tell us about straphangers as individuals, she agreed that there is something to be learned. “Generally, I wouldn’t be able to tell stories about individuals,” she said. “But if you collected enough over enough time, you might be able to tell stories about subway riders in New York City on certain lines or in certain stations. That is, you could talk about a micro-society by looking at the type of beverages, which are on tracks compared to which are in bins.”

Jack Johnson, cofounder of the University of Washington Garbology Project, said that it’s important to know what you’re looking for. “It helps to have a specific question, ” he said. If you’re looking for general information, it helps to define what Johnson called an “interpretive space.”

Johnson, who launched the UW Garbology project with Emily Newcomer in 2012, suggested a technique. “A lot of times paper items will have information about where people are coming from,” he said. “By tracing that stuff to their sources, you can sort of work up a profile.”

Spencer said that the station at Sutphin Boulevard near her house is often littered with legal documents. The Queens Supreme Court is nearby. There’s also a green market in the area, and plastic bags can be seen on the tracks too.

Spencer also said that there’s the Crown Fried Chicken “literally up the stairs from the station.” She used to see chicken bones or empty boxes. “It looks like it’s been run over by the train a couple of times,” she said. “So it looks like it’s been sitting there for a while.” In addition to the Crown Fried Chicken, there’s a liquor store near the station, too.

“Archaeologists have ‘activities areas,’ where people are doing certain things,” Johnson said. (Archaeology and garbology are closely linked, according to Johnson.) For example, in digging out a kitchen where people cook, you might expect to find pots and utensils.

Anubhab Das, 24, takes the F train every day through Brooklyn on his way to work as a teller at a credit union on Neptune Avenue. He sees discarded Starbucks cups and lids all the time. It might be reasonable to assume that a micro-society of Starbucks customers exists among subway riders, but coffee chains and like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts have locations throughout New York City.

Spencer has also seen Starbucks cups on the tracks  at the 14th Street station. That, and lighters. “Some people are like, ‘you got a light?’ And it’s like, well, there are 20,000 of them down there.” Go track diving and get one, she joked.

Daniel Sosunov, a 20-year-old Brooklyn College student, says he noticed Arizona iced tea bottles, “plastic bottles not cans,” Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Doritos, and cigarettes on the tracks.  Sosunov said he’s observed younger people littering. “I would say 20s to 30s. I’ve never seen an elder throwing anything. Never. Not once.”

The companies behind the brands commonly seen in the subway trash may also be provide clues. “We have also noticed our cans and bottles in trash cans, roadside and on subway tracks,” Arizona Beverage Co. communications director Jennifer Smith in an email. “We appeal to just about everyone, but our target demographic tends to be 12 – 24 males.”

Smith and Sosunov may offer insight into one specific demographic in subway trash, but that doesn’t tell the story the doll spotted at the Manhattan-bound express track at Atlantic Avenue, nor the earplugs on the Brooklyn-bound B and D line at Grand Street. The vinyl record on the Brooklyn College-bound express track at Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center and the slightly chewed pillow on the F line at Jay Street-MetroTech all have unique stories which we may never know.

An incomplete record isn’t the same as no record. “Archaeologists are used to fragmentary information,” Johnson said. He suggested that pairing specific kinds of litter on the tracks with MetroCard numbers could conceivably reveal the travel patterns of litterbugs throughout the system.  “Most of the questions you have,” he said, “you can probably get at indirectly. It’s just a question of sample size.”

But gaining access to the contents of a bag of trash taken from the platform may difficult. The MTA tends to remain tight lipped about internal affairs. One motorman refused to go on the record, citing a worker who was demoted from operating a bus to a cleaning crew after speaking to the press. Nor was the MTA ready to relent so that the story of its trash might be revealed.. “I can’t authorize you to interview random station workers about garbage collection,” Lisberg wrote in an email.

It would be fascinating to be able to tell the story of every piece of trash on tracks, and every rider who left it behind, but garbology tends to focus on more general aspects of society. “The things we do aren’t really designed to look at individuals because it’s hard to get funding because people think it’s creepy,” Johnson said.

For now, we may have to settle for insights from riders themselves and circumstances surrounding them. Riders may to try to connect the dots in their heads, and can come up with some pretty interesting stories.

Strange circumstances make that task a little easier. A friend compared this to “people watching,” but instead of looking at other straphangers, riders look at trash and try to tell their stories. Sometimes those stories are strange.

Nineteen-year-old student Aviva Sokolow saw sunglasses on the tracks on her way to school in the Bronx. “I saw the same pair of sunglasses everyday for like an entire semester by the Kings Highway station” in Brooklyn, she said in a message on Facebook. “I noticed them because they looked just like a pair I had.”

Sosunov says the strangest thing he’s seen on the subway tracks was a boot, and that he doesn’t know how it got there. “I would hate to think that somebody got hit, and that just, that’s his boot,” he said. The style, color, size and manufacturer of the boot are helpful clues to the identity of who put it there, beyond an educated guess that someone’s foot is probably cold and maybe wet.

Tarek Elghandour, who used to take the R train every day of the week when he was studying biology at Brooklyn College last year, also saw “old, muddy, ripped black sneakers” on the tracks.  “Might have been a homeless person who left them,” he said.

Rob Korblum, NYPIRG’s Brooklyn College coordinator, was riding the R line on a rainy day when he saw a deluge of newspapers– “hundreds of these papers, they were all like sogging wet. It looks like somebody smooshed hundreds of them close to the pole.” There’s a story behind those newspapers too. Somebody had to have put them there.

Spencer described the time she was disgusted at seeing a dirty diaper at the Roosevelt Avenue station. “It’s so unsanitary,” she said. “I’m pretty sure if the rats could talk they would probably be cursing out whoever threw it down there.”

Not every whiskey bottle was left by a drunk, but every whiskey bottle on the tracks was left by someone. The story of cans and bottles in our trash is they shouldn’t be there in the first place,” Newcomer of the UW Garbology Project wrote in an email. But as Johnson put it, some people don’t care. “Everyone knows a banana is compostable but some people throw it in the trash,” he said.

Subway platforms don’t have what Newcomer called “sets of containers.” That is, instead of different bins for trash, recycling, and compost, there is usually only a single trash bin.

In addition to diapers, children leave other kinds of litter on the subway system, things that wouldn’t belong in the bins either. Sokolow gives children’s socks as an example. “I see them all the time,” she said. “And it makes me feel all sad for the kid that lost his sock. Now some child is out with one sock.”

Kornblum had a similar experience when saw a children’s toy on the tracks. “Not only is that hazardous to us,” he said, “but damn, somebody is probably wondering where their toy is now. You can almost write the story backwards in your head.”

Photos: Moshe Berman.

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