The 1980s marked the birth of the modern environmental justice movements thanks to civil rights activists’ concerns about the disproportionate placements of landfills in low-income and Black communities. (see our Environmental Justice Spotify playlist here) Similar environmental injustice concerns are being voiced today about disparities in street litter bin availability in New York City (NYC). In 2018, Harlem neighborhood residents and community leaders raised sanitation and public health concerns when the NYC Sanitation Department removed 223 litter bins. The problem persisted two years after residents initially raised these concerns, and Harlem residents had increasing concerns about overflowing litter bins and street litter.
Previous research has documented associations between decreases in litter bin availability and increased street litter. There are numerous neighborhood health implications to excessive trash and street litter (e.g., increased vector-borne diseases, increased asthma/allergic reactions, and decreased ecological health). As such, disparities in litter bin availability pose a public health problem. New research by Nadav Sprague, Ariana Gobaud, Christina Mehranbod, Christopher Morrison, Charles Branas, and Ahuva Jacobowitz is the first study to examine the environmental injustice of limited street litter bins availability.
The study, recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, examines the association between neighborhood median household income and litter bin availability in NYC. The study used publicly available data from NYC’s Department of Sanitation for litter bin availability and the US Census Bureau for data on neighborhood demographic data. The authors used Multilevel Bayesian conditional autoregressive Poisson models to examine the count of litter bins by median household income in each census tract. Bivariate associations identified that census tracts with higher median household incomes had more litter bins than census tracts with lower median household incomes. The authors then accounted for spatial autocorrelation by adding a conditional autoregressive random effect to the Multilevel Bayesian conditional autoregressive Poisson model. Spatial autocorrelation is the phenomenon that arises because nearby census tracts are more likely to have similar values than distal census tracts. Once the authors accounted for spatial autocorrelation, the relationship between median household income and litter bin availability was no longer significant.
Further research is necessary to identify the spatially structured condition that accounted for the observed effect. Additionally, while it may quantitatively appear that NYC might be equitably distributing litter bins, the perceptions of litter bin availability at the local level are equally important. Research suggests that environmental health perceptions equally affect health outcomes as actual exposures. Additional qualitative and quantitative research is warranted to understand community members’ perceptions of litter bin availability disparities. Overall, this preliminary study warrants further investigation of perceived and actual disparities in litter bin availability.