Paula Ginsburg takes a sip of red wine and looks out at the ocean from her table at the Beach Chalet on the edge of Golden Gate Park.
“I don’t see a single piece of trash,” she says.
Ginsburg, a retired teacher from Everett Middle School, is taking a break from the Mission District to reflect on her latest project. Over the years she has worked with nearly 1,000 students in an effort to increase environmental awareness and prevent littering in the Mission. For a moment she ponders the stark difference between the streets of the Mission and her current surroundings. Maybe peer pressure is the answer. Who wants to be the one to drop that first piece of trash in a pristine setting like this, she asks.
“People think that the Mission is the trash heap of the city,” she says. “There are so many reasons why people litter.”
In an earlier story, we reported that by 2008, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom had removed 326 of the 5,000 sidewalk trash cans in the city, putting them into storage to counter problems of littering and illegal dumping. But many more cans were removed; Gloria Chan, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works (DPW), estimates there are now about 3,000 public cans.
While it’s hard not to blame some of the Mission’s litter on fewer trash cans — its commercial streets have fewer cans than those in Noe Valley and Pacific Heights — most experts agree that solutions to persistent litter issues involve more than adding trash cans or putting up PSA posters at the BART station.
One Mission resident thinks the debate should be reframed around behavior instead of the number of trash receptacles.
“People don’t refrain from parking illegally because they know it’s wrong; they refrain because they know that … there’s a very high probability that they will be cited,” says Gideon Kramer. “Credible enforcement does change behavior, as much as many people may resent it.”
Kramer also argues that litter can influence the way people engage with their communities, and that it has a greater impact on communities than simple aesthetic concerns.
“You ignore [trash] and you send a silent message that it’s OK … keep doing more,” he says. “It is as true with littering as it is with graffiti, vandalism and other petty crimes.”
So why do people litter in the first place? Rob Wallace, spokesman for the Keep America Beautiful campaign, names three major factors that motivate people to litter: a lack of personal connection to the community, infrastructure problems such as the lack of public receptacles, and the false perception that someone else will clean up after the litterer.
The third factor puts Wallace’s organization in an interesting position: Its affiliates organize community cleanups. The biggest factor motivating people to not litter is peer pressure, Wallace says: If the social norm is to use a receptacle, individuals are much less likely to toss garbage onto the street or sidewalk.
The final solution to the littering conundrum, education, varies by audience and demographic, but is an important step. Before kindergarten is not too soon to start spreading the message about litter, Wallace says. The largest number of litterers is in the 18-35 age range, which has inspired his organization to start a dialogue using humor and a message that’s accessible to younger audiences.
Keep Britain Tidy, an environmental organization that heads Britain’s anti-litter campaign, conducted a study on youth semiotics and formulated sustained media campaigns that incorporated age-appropriate messages, even hiring a sociologist to learn more about teenage values and culture. One of the group’s central findings was that teens believe the self is much more important than the consequences of actions. The resulting campaigns were cheeky and open-ended, and led to an overall decrease of 8 percent in littering.
Ginsburg, who works with Everett Middle School students, says that San Francisco schools’ curriculum needs to be complemented by hands-on environmental work. Everett students built a school garden and have participated in community outreach field trips.
Mission youth fail to notice their environment and this leads to poor decision-making, Ginsburg says. Her strategy, outlined in her book “One Simple Thing,” is to design and distribute posters that say, “Napkins come from trees, take only what you need.”
“The core of the issue is over-consumption,” she says.
But she acknowledges that handing out posters is not enough. To truly change the way Missionites think about litter, the city needs to step in. Litter citations are one solution. The fine for littering in San Francisco is about $225, according to Officer Steven Keith of the Mission Police Station.
“There’s an anti-litter law, but I’ve gotten so frustrated with it over the years,” Ginsburg says. “It’s never enforced.”
Ginsburg and Kramer agree that in order to change behavior, residents need to be aware of the potential consequences. But are there any real consequences?
In terms of priority, littering “falls where most people would expect it to fall,” says Captain Greg Corrales of the Mission Station. “We’re not out looking for people littering when we’re trying to thwart gang violence.”
While Corrales may not have the resources to arrest every person who flicks a cigarette butt into the gutter, he acknowledges that there is a relationship between trash and crime.
“Certainly a run-down neighborhood attracts criminal activity,” he says. “But I don’t think that’s the case in most areas of the Mission.”
Maryland’s state parks have taken an approach similar to San Francisco’s: They have eliminated all trash cans, and since 1993 have distributed biodegradable trash bags for visitors to pack out their own waste.
Although park visitors may have a different attitude toward environmental stewardship than city dwellers, Chris Bushman, deputy superintendent of the Maryland Park Service, thinks the system could also work in cities.
“It instills a sense of individual stewardship that we are all responsible for the upkeep of parks,” Bushman says.
All of Maryland’s state parks have seen an improvement with the pack-out system, Bushman says, and report an average 80 to 90 percent compliance rate.
Others believe that proximity to trash cans helps discourage littering. According to the Keep America Beautiful campaign, littering usually occurs at least 29 feet from a trash receptacle. Unfortunately, metrics comparing cleanliness and litter abatement success between urban centers are hard to come by.
There are approximately 3,000 trash cans in San Francisco, or about one trash can per 268 residents. Currently, Boston has one city-maintained trash can per 411 residents, New York City has one public trash can per 320 people, and Washington, DC, has one public receptacle per 128 people.
Every establishment and household in San Francisco is required by law to have a trash service account, according to DPW’s Chan. DPW, which conducts outreach walks down busy city corridors like Mission Street and Cesar Chavez Street, has concluded that businesses and residents who do not have a trash service account have been illegally dumping their trash into overflowing public receptacles on the sidewalks.
Another piece of the infrastructure picture is Recology, San Francisco’s waste collection, recycling, compost and disposal services company. Recology typically picks up residential waste one day a week, but commercial accounts decide how often they would like their trash picked up. Trash from the majority of public waste receptacles is collected twice a day. In Boston’s busy downtown area, 400 trash cans are emptied three times per day to alleviate overflow.
In 2009, a study commissioned by the City of San Francisco found that glass, tobacco products, paper, hard plastics and candy wrappers make up the majority of street litter. The city levied a 20 cent-per-pack fee on cigarettes in 2009 to offset the estimated $7,487,916 spent cleaning up tobacco product litter each year. (The study, published in 2009, was conducted by the Health Economics Consulting Group LLC for San Francisco’s Department of Environment.)
Used cigarette filters pose serious environmental risks from trapped poisons like arsenic, cadmium and toluene, according to Dr. Elizabeth Smith, an associate adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco. In a 2010 paper entitled “Whose Butt Is It?,” Smith stated that no program thus far has successfully prevented or mitigated cigarette butt pollution, and that “cigarette butts are consistently found to be the single most collected item in beach clean-ups and litter surveys.”
Utilizing research from tobacco companies like RJ Reynolds, Smith noted that smokers have a variety of reasons for littering, ranging from defiant ritual to necessity when there was no receptacle nearby, and including guilt and eagerness to dispose of the evidence immediately.
“More bins won’t help,” Smith said in a phone interview with Mission Loc@l. Instead, she suggests that the cigarette industry get rid of filters.
Rather than wait for the city to clean up after residents or cigarette companies to change their product, 20 business owners on the 2500 block of Mission Street have taken matters into their own hands. In 2005, they established a business improvement district (BID), and have been paying higher taxes ever since. Each business or property owner on the block pays $60 per linear foot of storefront space per year. The extra revenue helps pay for a variety of services, such as surveillance cameras, weekly power-washing and graffiti removal.
“The BID provides a safe, clean, green oasis in the inner Mission,” says Phil Lesser, who helped renew the “Mission Miracle Mile” BID last year. “The 2500 block looks a lot cleaner than the 2600 and 2400 blocks,” he adds.
The 2500 block is still the only BID in the Mission District. Gideon Kramer, who was instrumental in its creation back in 2005, does not think that all Mission blocks are ready to adopt this model.
“The Mission District has a lot of business owners that aren’t terribly bothered by the trash,” he says.
In comparison, neighboring districts such as the Castro and Noe Valley have organized multiple BIDs.
“It’s really up to the community,” says DPW’s Chan.
James Nunemacher of Vanguard Realty, another member of the 2500 block BID, cites the constant stream of people from BART as a challenge to keeping the area clean. But he remains hopeful for the BID’s success, and says they are on track to expand up and down the street.
“I saw an immediate difference, from day one,” says Nunemacher, who is happy with the results of the self-imposed tax. “People notice it. We are setting a self-perpetuating example.”