How Plant-Filled Dumpsters Can Help Keep Pollution Out Of The Gowanus Canal

Nearly 400 million gallons of raw sewage go into the Brooklyn canal every year. The dumpsters can slow some of the flow–and draw attention to the problem.

How Plant-Filled Dumpsters Can Help Keep Pollution Out Of The Gowanus Canal
[Images: Alloy]

After decades as a dumping ground for industrial waste, the filthy Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn–one of the most polluted waterways in the country–is finally at the beginning of a long cleanup process as a Superfund site. But every time there’s a heavy rainstorm, the canal fills with even more pollution from the city’s overflowing sewers.


That’s why a handful of tree-filled dumpsters are parked around the neighborhood this summer–both to keep some rain out of the sewage system, and to help point out why the city needs a broader solution.

Right now, as in many older cities, New York’s combined sewer system deals with both rain and sewage water. When there’s too much rain, raw sewage overflows into water bodies like the Gowanus.

“In order to stop that, we need to soak up more stormwater before it gets into the sewer system,” says Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, which partnered with Alloy, a developer, to add the temporary dumpsters, called the 2,000 Gallon Project.

The city is in the process of adding dozens of bioswales–plant-filled trenches designed to slow and filter rainwater–in the neighborhood. It also plans to build two huge sewage tanks that total 12 million gallons of storage. The dumpsters are meant to help people understand why those changes are so important, and why even more is needed.

Each of the six dumpsters, 11 feet long and six feet high, can hold 2,000 gallons, roughly the same volume of stormwater that the new bioswales manage. They’re meant partly as a way to help people visualize the underground infrastructure they probably won’t ever see. “This is a great way to start talking about how much water that is,” says Parker. “We’re also getting two large sewage tanks. So you can start aggregating them and really get to understand what the impact is.”

The city also planted a “sponge park” next to the canal to help capture and filter stormwater. On their own, the bioswales, sewage tanks, and sponge park won’t completely solve the issue. Around 377 million gallons of raw sewage goes into the canal every year. So the dumpsters are also meant to serve as an example of the type of smaller tool that could be added in the neighborhood to build a stronger defense against runoff.


The dumpsters have drains in the bottom, but by holding back some heavy rain temporarily, they can be useful at the most crucial time. “When it rains, the sewer system gets overwhelmed in real time,” Parker says. “Having retention structures to soak up that stormwater delays the time between when it falls and when it actually gets to the sewer.”

The dumpsters will be parked in parking spaces temporarily (as part of the city’s Street Seats program, which allows pop-up parks), and then the trees and plants inside them will be planted around the neighborhood. By that point, Alloy and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy are hoping that the project will have inspired neighbors to take action themselves, adding rain barrels or gardens to help keep more water out of gutters.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.