San Francisco may trade back and forth with other cities as the most expensive place to live, but it wins first place, hands down, on being the city that will pay the most per bin for its public garbage cans. That’s the result of a small survey of other urban municipalities by Mission Local.
In a bid to replace the city’s 3,300-plus public bins, last month the Board of Supervisors approved $400,000 to spend on a pilot program testing 15 $12,000 prototypes. If these bins are mass-produced, with an emphasis on if, that price tag will drop to $2,000 to $3,000 apiece, according to an estimate by San Francisco Public Works.
But even the low-end estimate of $2,000 exceeds the cost of bins primarily used by other cities nationwide or, at least, of the large and mid-sized cities we checked in on: New York City; Washington, D.C.; Sacramento; Los Angeles and Chicago.
Additionally, Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who oversees the Mission District, says the cities she’s familiar with, including Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington, D.C., are cleaner than San Francisco.
“If other cities who have similar populations and similar challenges — poverty in an urban area — are able to seemingly keep their streets cleaner, there has to be a reason why we seem to continue to fail at this challenge,” she said. “I don’t understand why this is so hard and so expensive for San Francisco.”
Most public garbage bins in New York City are wire-mesh and go for $137.75, while the Big Apple’s higher-end bins are $632 apiece, less than a third of the expected $2,000 minimum cost of San Francisco’s new bins. Even New York City’s combined, three-can receptacles for trash and recycling are only $767.02 each, according to Vincent Gragnani, press secretary at the New York City Department of Sanitation.
Meanwhile, Sacramento spends $1,300 per can; Washington, D.C., $987; and Los Angeles, $449.51. Chicago, which discontinued purchasing $504.70 decorative baskets, spends $125.66 per wire basket.
Beth Rubenstein, deputy director of policy and communications for San Francisco Public Works, said it’s important to compare apples to apples: Her department, she said, is tasked with addressing comments and needs from the mayor, Board of Supervisors, community benefits districts and city businesses.
“They told us loud and clear what they want from a trash can,” she said. San Francisco’s bins must be tamper-proof, which Rubenstein said is hard to find among off-the-shelf bins made by major companies; they must be durable and esthetically suitable; they must be difficult for vermin to enter; they must be equipped with a sensor that alerts Public Works and Recology of trash volume; they must fit on narrow sidewalks; and they must use a 32-gallon rolling toter so Recology can hoist the trash receptacle with its equipment.
San Francisco’s current public bins, which cost $1,218 apiece, function poorly in multiple ways, she said: They’re not durable, they’re rummageable and they don’t have a toter. Left unsaid: They’re still costly. At $1,218, they’re still more expensive than bins used in nearly all of the cities we contacted.
Rubenstein said San Francisco is paying more, but is getting what it pays for.
“From a practical sense, it’s hard to imagine that a can we’re asking to perform at a much higher level to be much less expensive than that,” Rubenstein said. “I think the question is if we want a better bin.”
In fact, the specs for San Francisco’s expensive bins are exceptional.
Waste and sanitation officials in Sacramento and New York City, for instance, said their cities each primarily use off-the-shelf cans that don’t meet the expectations for San Francisco’s next bin. Sacramento and New York City officials separately told Mission Local that they felt their current bins have generally served their respective populations well.
Quentin Kopp, a former city supervisor and retired San Mateo County Superior Court judge, said there’s nothing he finds “obnoxious nor ill-suited” about the city’s current bins, which, he added, are emptied once to several times a day.
“As president of the San Francisco Taxpayers Association, I am astonished by such manifest taxpayer waste from the Department of Public Works, which already now is known for its internal corruption,” Kopp said after hearing the per-bin cost comparison to the other cities.
Supervisor Matt Haney, chair of the Budget Committee, noted that the $2,000-to-$3,000 figure was an estimate from San Francisco Public Works, and that nothing has yet been decided concerning a contract, cost nor design for the full replacement of the thousands of cans.
“I plan to do everything I can to make sure it gets done as quickly and cost effectively as possible,” Haney said.
District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan said it’s projects like this that often make people question how city governments operate.
“Like, how can we do better on cost control and identify some effective solutions and provide the deliverables?” she said. “With all these conversations around contracting, accountability, transparency, how can we spend our public dollars efficiently? All these conversations point to how we need to do better.”
Public Works, which spent three years researching a new prototype, will audition three designs during a 60-day test period. After collecting data, the department will decide on a design, which could refine one of the prototypes or feature a combination of characteristics from the three types of cans.
Public Works said the maintenance costs are expected to be less expensive than those on the current bins, as the latter have ongoing issues with locks and hinges.
But whether they will make the city cleaner is unlikely. Additional bins are not going to be added, and San Francisco appears ready to stick to former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s policy to cull the city of 1,500 bins.
Indeed, the other comparable urban areas we surveyed simply have more bins. Manhattan, with about 396 public bins per square mile of land, has the most among comparable cities, ones where residents walk a lot. Our nation’s capital follows, with about 108 per square mile of land, followed by San Francisco, with about 70. Chicago did not offer a precise figure — “several hundred” in total, a spokesperson wrote, for its 228 square miles of land.
The two other cities with fewer bins per square mile are in less urban, less walkable cities: Los Angeles is working to deploy 12.8 to 13.9 bins per square mile of land, and Sacramento has just 1 to 1.6.
Rubenstein, from Public Works, countered that analyzing the number of bins per mile isn’t a helpful way to think about trash bin need, adding that it’s more important to think about use and density.
“We definitely look at high-density corridors, commercial corridors, things like where people congregate: commercial areas, bus stops, schools, tourist destinations, high-density areas,” she said. “That’s how we determine what’s enough, and we’re constantly calibrating because we get calls from residents and businesses to place more trash cans, so we respond to calls for trash can needs.”
Gragnani, from the New York City Department of Sanitation, said, “Waste disposal in all cities presents an important challenge. We wish the City of San Francisco luck in its efforts.”