The three: blue for recycling, black for trash, and green for compost

Angelica Ortega sees a lot from her vantage point on the corner of Bryant and 24th streets. As she sells flowers to passersby, she watches trash fall from hands and onto the sidewalks. People need to take responsibility, she said, but something else is missing. Trashcans.

Across the street, Gabriela Lozano, owner of L’s Café on 24th and Bryant streets, agreed. She never understood why Mayor Newsom ordered the removal of hundreds of public trashcans two years ago.

“Now we have overflowing trashcans and trash on the street,” she said.

Mayor Gavin Newsom decided in 2007 that the solution to litter and illegal dumping in city trashcans was to remove a good portion of them. Two years later, a new litter study by the Department of Public Works is expected to demonstrate only a slight improvement, according to a city worker.

In the Mission, businesses and residents still debate whether the mayor’s strategy has worked. And, they are unsure if the new universal recycling and composting ordinance effective Oct. 21 will help or add to the problem.

“Before, there used to be a container on every street,” said Salvador Román, the janitor at La Victória bakery on 24th and Alabama. “Now there is one every two blocks.”

If Román sees this as a problem, Kasa Mehari, owner of Tony’s Market on 25th and Hampshire streets, said fewer cans have meant a better-looking — and better-smelling — sidewalk.

“People peed in it,” he said. “Wherever there’s a trash can, it’s dirty.”

Before canning the cans in 2007, the mayor promised to cut the city’s trash by half in five years. He cited a study showing San Francisco had at least twice the number of trash receptacles per square mile as New York ,and four times as many as Los Angeles.

He also cited a 2007 Department of Public Works pilot project on Ocean Avenue that removed half the street’s trashcans and found doing so meant less litter and more businesses paying for pick-up service.

The latter — businesses that evaded garbage service in 2007 — included 453 property owners along the main corridors. The Mission District was home to some of the worst evaders, said Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of operations at Public Works.

With evidence from the pilot study showing that without public cans evaders would get service that in San Francisco costs $87 per 64 gallon cart, the city began removing trash cans.

By January 2008, 326 of its 5,000 sidewalk cans had been hauled into storage on Cesar Chavez Street. Trashcans disappeared on many Mission streets including about five on 24th Street.  Today some 1,600 are gone from the city and only 3,400 cans remain.

While three years remain before Newsom’s promise to reduce trash by half in five years, the early returns are far from dramatic. Paul Ledesma, a litter analyst with San Francisco Environment, said the recently finished but not-yet-released litter audit shows only a slightly upward trend toward less litter citywide.

Moreover, the economic downturn has hurt. Fewer businesses have service, said Robert Reed, spokesperson for Norcal Waste, which owns the only two companies — Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal — authorized by the city.

Instead of paying for service, evaders leave their garbage in public trashcans along the street, or in other people’s bins, Reed said. With fewer cans on the street, more trash is likely to end up around them.

San Francisco State’s  Golden Gate [X]Press reported in August that after a Mission Street cleanup, Public Works cited 63 businesses and residential properties for evading trash service.

Moreover, because many residential units in the Mission are subdivided to house more people, the trash often exceeds the number of provided bins. So, tenants leave extra trash out on the streets or in a neighbor’s container.

“On street-cleaning day, we couldn’t get the streets clean because so many people were putting so much stuff out,” Nuru said.

Listed among the 10 worst litter sites in the 2007 litter report were 15th and Folsom, 18th and Shotwell, 22nd and Folsom, and 21st and Valencia streets.

But even today, these and other streets aren’t much better, residents said.

Erick Arguello, founder of the Lower 24th Street Merchants’ Association, said the sidewalks of 23rd and Potrero, and Hampshire and York fill up on the first of every month.

“I’ve seen people carrying mattresses, TVs, boxes of clothes, computers,” he said, adding that it’s cheaper to dump than haul, and many Mission residents don’t own cars.

Trash and a shoe in the Mission.
Trash and a shoe in the Mission.

“There should be programs for people who can’t pay that monthly fee — for people who are extremely poor and struggling to survive,” an insider said, adding that many wealthy people also evade service.

Into this ongoing struggle, on Oct. 21 the city will begin to comply with the Universal Recycling and Composting Ordinance.

Nuru, who contends that Mission trash has decreased because of a street-cleaning program along the wider streets, is convinced that the new ordinance will bring the city’s trash problem to an end.

It requires every residential and commercial property to separate trash, recyclables and compost into three appropriate bins — green for compost, blue for recycled items and black for trash.

Businesses must provide all three containers to customers, and if not sorted properly after two reminders from Norcal Waste and warnings from the city, fines of up to $1,000 will follow.

This threat, according to several officials, is new. Up until now, the refuse collection code has focused on residents even putting liens on residential property, said Alex Dmitriew, Commercial Zero Waste assistant coordinator.

This time around, however, businesses will be the focus and residents will be fined up to $100. Moreover, residents of multifamily or tenant buildings will get until July 2011 to get used to composting.

But businesses will be held accountable from the outset, Dmitriew said.

So far, said Reed, the response from business has been encouraging.

Since the ordinance passed in June, the number of requests for bins has doubled to 85 a day for green bins and 45 a day for blue bins, Reed said. The green bins are more in demand because composting has been rarer than recycling.

Nuru’s confidence in the ordinance comes from this notion: Having to decide what piece of trash goes in what bin will make everyone more aware.

Juan Candelas, owner of Taqueria San Francisco, however, thinks the bins will be more trouble. Already, he gets a headache when he leaves his three bins outside after closing and returns in the morning to find them haphazardly packed with someone else’s trash.

The ordinance, he said, could mean fines for him even when he’s not at fault.

The owner of Café La Boheme on 24th and Mission streets is also worried about extra fines. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I pay them $500 a month for me to have to go through my trash?”

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  1. I just put my trash in a Bay Guardian box or where there used to be a garbage can I just throw it there.

    If the trash cans were overflowing then they should have been emptied more often.

    That idiot mayor noted that we had four times more than LA per whatever? Mayor hair wants to be mayor of entire state, maybe he should drive around LA sometime first and look at population density and the lack of people walking around in 90% of the city.

  2. I live at 24th and Bartlett. Before the new policy there was a trash can on the south-east corner. It was a mess! always overflowing. It also served as a hangout for the neighborhood dudes who would buy their beer at the corner store, prop their boom-box on top of the trash can and hang out until 11pm or later blasting music at a high volume. Yelling matches and even a few thrown punches were common. When the trash can went, so did the jokers. Seems a little counterintuitive, but the corner has never been cleaner or quieter. Good riddance!

  3. I live at 24th and Bartlett. Before the new policy there was a trash can on the south-east corner. It was a mess! always overflowing. It also served as a hangout for the neighborhood dudes who would buy their beer at the corner store, prop their boom-box on top of the trash can and hang out until 11pm or later blasting music at a high volume. Yelling matches and even a few thrown punches were common. When the trash can went, so did the jokers. The corner has never been cleaner or quieter. Good riddance!

  4. One thing I don’t understand is why street cleaning occurs one day BEFORE garbage pick up .A new litter stream from street people rummaging and tipped cans sends a whole new tide of litter off and running the very next day!The wind carries the litter back up and down the street.P.s. potero hills litter blows down hill on to the mission so its not just a mission=sloopy thing its TIMING and the coastal breeze.I suspect that because street cleaning is so poorly timed against garbage pick up that the problem remains persistant.