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It’s no secret that much of San Francisco’s trash — especially so in neighborhoods like the Mission, Tenderloin and Mission Dolores — ends up on the sidewalks.
Christine, a property owner who lives on 21st Street near Mission Street, was outside her home picking up small pieces of detritus with a pincer-armed grabbing tool one morning. “In an ideal world, people would have somewhere to put their trash,” she says.
But in San Francisco, that place would be on the sidewalk or the steps of Christine’s property where she regularly cleans up trash — and sometimes has to call the city’s 311 hotline when it’s human feces and diarrhea.
Angel Mayorga, a 63-year-old resident who has lived in the Mission his whole life, also often uses the 311 application on his iPhone to send notices to San Francisco Public Works. They clean it up, but the problem persists. “Clean streets and cleanliness is a basic human need,” Mayorga said. “It gets disgusting.”
But it is not only human feces, which residents can always call 311 to clean up. It’s everyday litter — cans, old meals, food wrappers — the kind of trash residents would normally toss in a receptacle.
It used to be that the Mission and San Francisco had what most cities have: ubiquitous public litter cans. But in 2007, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom decided that the best way to reduce garbage in San Francisco was to get rid of garbage cans.
Ross Mirkarimi, former sheriff and supervisor of District 5, recalled having a meeting with Newsom and other high-ranking officials. According to Mirkarimi, city leaders believed that “trash cans become a magnet for more trash that exceeds the can itself. They believed cans were becoming a marker for people to unload whatever they wanted.”
“I was not in favor of taking away trash cans,” says Mirkarimi. “I thought it was counter-intuitive, but the administration was so insistent that this was an experiment we had to try.”
And they did. Some roughly 1,500 trash cans were pulled from city streets.
Nowadays, residents routinely walk several blocks before coming across a trashcan. Along the way, one sees to-go containers, paper bags, masks, gloves, and other trash from other pedestrians who simply gave up finding a trash can. And, it’s no wonder.
In 2007, the city had 4,500 trash cans. Now, we have 3,113 public trash cans — 1,500 fewer cans than there were on the streets 14 years ago.
And, compared to other cities, even 4,500 cans added up to very few for a 47-square mile city; 3,113 even less so. Manhattan, for example, has three times the number of litter baskets — 9,144 — to cover its 23 square miles, according to the New York City Sanitation Department.
In contrast, the abundance of litter baskets in Manhattan is readily apparent. Nearly every corner has a trash can. Walk in San Francisco with trash in hand, and keep walking. Anyone who has a dog knows that you have to walk at least a couple of blocks to find a trash receptacle.
Although the idea to rid a city of public trash bins to clean it up sounds counterintuitive, it is based on the idea that when a city has many public trash bins, people take advantage and use them for illegal dumping of household or business trash. Other cities have come to the same conclusion.
In fact, New York City similarly got rid of 223 trash bins in Harlem in 2008, when officials decided the bins attracted dumping. That experiment fell short as well. Removing the baskets failed to “appreciably decrease litter,” according to the NYC Department of Sanitation.
The failure of Newsom’s plan to solve the city’s trash problem has not gone unnoticed.
Public Works trash bin experiment of 2017
In April of 2017, Public Works, in partnership with Mayor Ed Lee and District Supervisor Hillary Ronen, installed 38 new garbage cans along the Mission Street corridor between 14th and Cesar Chavez streets. The “Yes We Can” pilot program in the Mission District was a direct response to the idea that more trash cans might mean less trash ending up on the sidewalk and streets.
Promises were made at the time to track whether “the additional receptacles result in less litter and fewer complaints” to 311, which came into existence in 2008.
Looking at service request from 12 months prior to the new cans and 12 months after, “We did see more calls for overflowing cans, but we didn’t see noticeably more complaints for services around litter,” said Rachel Gordon, the spokesperson for the Department of Public Works.
There is no data on calls for overflowing cans. But, during the test period, service calls for litter patrol went from an average of 77 per month to 74 per month, and service requests for illegal dumping went from 70 a month to 61 a month after the program.
Gordon says she believes the 38 new bins are still there.
At present, San Francisco still has the 3,113 public trash cans it had after Newsom’s plan went into effect, compared to 4,500 in 2007. Those along 24th Street, Mission Street and Cesar Chavez are serviced a minimum of twice a day, seven days a week, according to Recology.
Gordon says that if district supervisors want more cans, they will put more in, as long as the cans “will not cause more problems than they are helping.”
“For starters,” Supervisor Ronen said, “we need more bins outside each of our parks – Garfield, Jose Coronado, Parque Ninos Unidos,” adding that she has “been advocating for more and better trash bins for District 9 for years.”
San Francisco is indeed in the process of choosing from a number of new designs.
For now, some say, the bins in San Francisco are easy to rummage through (both for rodents and humans), and difficult to tell whether or not they are for trash or recycling.
Honey Mahogany, a legislative aide for supervisor Matt Haney, called the current cans “renaissance trash cans,” meaning that they are easy to misuse. They were picked by disgraced former Public Works director Mohammed Nuru, even though he was told they were ineffective by some supervisors, including Mirkarimi, according to him.
Reporting trash and litter to Public Works through 311
Tracking the amount of trash on the sidewalk in San Francisco is made possible by data from 311, which started out a phone number, and later became an app, allowing residents to report garbage on the streets of San Francisco.
The service came into being in 2008, the year after Newsom got rid of 1,500 trash cans, so there are no before and after comparisons. Mayor Ed Lee introduced the 311 app in August of 2013.
In the past five years — after adjusting for the size of the population — Mission Dolores has had the second-highest number of complaints about trash. The Mission ranks third, and the Tenderloin comes in first place.
In 2019, the Mission had the second-highest volume of 311 calls for feces removal, with 14 percent of citywide requests or a total of 3,942 service calls. The neighborhood’s calls about overflowing bins reached 1,613 last year — putting it in third place for calls about bins.
When trash ends up on the sidewalk, residents call or file a report via 311 and crews working for the Department of Public Works pick up the trash.
Fewer bins and bigger budgets for Recology and the Department of Public Works
Although the city’s population has increased by just over 10 percent since Newsom’s 2007 plan went into effect and the city has 1,500 fewer public bins. Nevertheless, Recology’s budget has “increased by more than a third, to more than $22 million annually,” according to Robert Reed, a spokesperson for Recology.
The Department of Public Works ends up picking up street trash from the 311 calls. Its crews —which include laborers, truck drivers and supervisors — have increased by 25 percent over the past five years to 349.
Gordon said the “goal is to respond to street cleaning requests within 48 hours; 24 hours for human/animal waste.” Public Works hits that target for 91.4 percent of the requests, she said.
But much of the litter does not get reported, and remains on the streets.
Anthony, a laborer for the Department of Public Works who was picking up trash on Bartlett Street in the Mission, said that he struggles to keep up with the requests.
“Right now I am backed up … still trying to catch up from two days ago, and we have a thing in the city where we’re supposed to get it done in a certain time, so I am just trying to do what I can to get it done.”
Without more trash cans or pick-up crews, Paul Monge, an aide to Supervisor Ronen, pointed to Proposition B, which 61 percent of the voters approved in November.
The legislation will not add trash cans or trash crews, but it will create oversight of the Department of Public Works, and it will also create a new Department of Sanitation and Streets in 2022, and a five-member Sanitation and Streets Commission to oversee the former.
Until then, supervisors appease their constituents with different solutions.
Mahogany, who helped write Proposition B, says that Haney uses “add-back” money, or money found through the city’s regular budget process granted back to the community, to clean up the streets around the Tenderloin and Civic Center, where excessive trash was hurting small businesses.
“Our office has taken cleaning the district on ourselves, and has put funding into street cleaning, investing in cleaning in a more direct way, and passing an ordinance requiring public bathrooms near [homeless] camps,” Mahogany said.
“We do not invest as a city to take care of streets, and it is predominately people of color in urban areas who are being impacted by DPW not taking responsibility for cleaning sidewalks,” Mahogany said.
Mission residents like Francesca Pastine, who has been living in the Mission since 1994 and in San Francisco since 1976, regularly sends Ronen’s office emails filled with photos of litter-strewn streets.
She would like to see Public Works take more responsibility and work proactively to clean up trash.
Gordon says, “But really, we also have to keep focus on why streets are getting trashed in the first place.”
She blames a careless mindset and a lack of concern among San Francisco residents. She tries to confront that with public awareness campaigns in schools and elsewhere. But, thus far, education hasn’t worked.
Mirkarimi agrees that it is up to residents. “Unless there is some manner of accountability, to make the social and personal responsibility work” the city will not be cleaned up.