Trash on 17th Street
On 17th Street. Photo by Lydia Chávez

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.”

David Mamaril Horowitz

David’s one of those San Francisco natives who gets excited whenever City College is mentioned. He has journalism degrees from there and San Francisco State University, graduating from the latter in...

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25 Comments

  1. Why is it that SF hasn’t the funds to deal with homelessness, drugs in the street and rampant crime?

    1. Re: “Why is it that SF hasn’t the funds to deal with homelessness, drugs in the street and rampant crime?” — SF spends about 10x per homeless person what San Jose spends, and about 4x what Oakland spends. SF is spending plenty, but if we’re going to spend so much more than our neighboring cities, we’ll also continue to draw more homeless than these other locations. Either they need to increase spending (to improve homelessness for the region) or we need to cut it (to stop incentivizing people to come in from other nearby areas).

      1. That figure your quoting probably included funds spent to keep people housed, through making affordable housing available and such. The homeless situation in San Francisco would be far worse without such efforts. Also, San Francisco and Oakland were the only two cities in the United States the United Nations included in a worldwide study of cruel and inhumane treatment of the homeless published in 2018.

    2. Of course SF would “pay” a RIDICULOUS amount of money for a TRASH BIN! GOD forbid that Mayor Breed and/or any District Supervisor actually tell SF taxpayers that they’re paying what that TRASH BIN is really worth–easier to put the extra $$$$$ into their own pockets! DISGUSTING BUT THAT’S SF GOVERNMENT!

  2. Tokyo, a mega city, has no trash cans! Yet its streets are spotless.

    The cleanliness streets has to do more with other factors that just having trash cans. It so has to do with the civic mentally of people. Regardless of how many trash cans there are, if people are inconsiderate, the will liter. Also some of the homeless also contributes the trash problem.

    1. is it because people get 2 years in prison if they litter? and 99% of accused criminals get convicted (meaning lots of innocents get punished)? US is not a dictatorship!

  3. If you think Ex-public works department head Mohammed Nuru was a problem……..then you people are truly hopeless and gullible lol.

    But oh well, your tax payers at work here folks, no one asks questions, you sheep deserve what is coming lol

  4. Constantly calibrating?! What a load of… trash. 1,500 bins short since Newsom’s ill-advised trashing of the trash cans, and it shows.

    ADA-compliant bear bins, like those at Aquatic Park and Lake Tahoe, meet all of the requirements (except an unnecessary sensor to make up for a lack of routine collections) and cost less than $1500.

    Removing the deposit on recyclable cans would also help reduce rummaging (and the theft of revenue from the city), but is unlikely to be considered.

  5. While standards have drifted during COVID, NY has a much more efficient and less corrupt sanitation service. Additionally it is cleaner due to right to shelter will less homeless emptying trash cans.

  6. When San Francisco goes on a buying spree it seems we who are not “insiders” are always cheated. Just look at all the ugly non-functioning bus shelters that were supposed to spiff us up and keep us dry.

    I would suggest that the city planners look beyond comparisons to other American cities, but I fear that means sending lots of delegates to Paris or Singapore to find out what is working or not working elsewhere.

    Simple civic pride should be enough to keep our beautiful city sparkling, but how can one make a case for trash bins when our streets and sidewalks are filled with human refuse: beings who society has thrown away as if they were garbage?

    Oh, the city is searching for the proper bins for them as well, is it not?

  7. What a shocker.

    I remember when the Panhandle Playground was renovated. It’s not too big of a playground. How much did it cost? $3 million, or around $1000 per square foot, more than a new home costed (at the time). How much would another city spend on a playground? Maybe $30k. There was one dude out there with a shovel just pushing some dirt around for a couple of months until they finally brought some equipment in to finish the job after stretching it out to look like they were doing work. Someone got paid off there.

    Anyone who doesn’t recognize that Nuru wasn’t the only deeply corrupted official and that fat contracts continue to be handed out is missing obvious signs. San Francisco has been sold.

    1. For waste, look at the Sunset Blvd median. I was driving there about two weeks ago. The median has looked horrible since the improvements, but what I saw astounded me. DPW crews were there…..burning some of the median.

      I gotta think the original median contract was a Nuru special. And the burning? Well, who the hell knows with the City now.

  8. Once the City starts cracking down on illegal units versus turning their heads to this we will see a huge decrease in garbage on our streets. Almost every single daily home within blocks has 2/3/4 families crammed in garages, no permitted axis and extra rooms – all without garbage service.

  9. I had to get in a veritable screaming match with a public works employee at a public meeting to get a trash can installed on our corner. The only reason she relented was because we live near a school. Their reasoning was that people are more prone to dumping household trash if a public trash can is there. People were dumping trash regardless, they were just dumping it mid-block where it didn’t get collected unless we pushed it into the street on street sweeping day.
    We don’t need fancy trash cans. We need far more trash cans that are emptied more often, as well as getting rid of the deposit on cans and bottles to keep people from rummaging through our residential bins every week and leaving a mess. This isn’t rocket science.

  10. Bins with sensors will work great as long as public service actually picks up the thrash. And just like everything else… maybe the thrash cans will get stolen. They better install a gps tracking device and alarm for it too.

  11. Waste of money look up “we have no garbage day in Amsterdam” in YouTube automated cans that tell the city workers when to pick them up.

  12. I always thought it was strange how SF doesn’t have more trash bins. Garbarge is EVERYWHERE. It’s pretty simple if one does look at NYC. Also, if SF is pushing to be more “green” with less cars, might want to consider those people that do walk and use public transportation; if garbage is CONSTANTLY on the streets wouldn’t one speculate that more bins are needed (that aren’t $1,000)?!

    Second, I am surprised that Newsom wanted less bins in SF. Personally, I imagine it’s easy to say & state opinions if you haven’t lived in SF without a car for a long number of years.

    Lastly, I had no idea as a resident I was supposed to call and complain in order to receive trash bins in the areas I commute to and from.

    Great article, informative, and yes about the mention of internal corruption and how issues like this make everyone more curious to how things are actually run in our city. Disappointed tax payer*

    1. I’m with Kimberly here. I remember that Gavin Newsom removed trash bins right after he became Mayor of SF in 2004. It made no sense then, and it makes no sense now.

  13. We need a shame campaign! Put up signs all over the city stating that people who litter are assholes. Make it fun, but it needs to bite. If you litter, you fucking suck. Encourage people to yell at jerks who put trash on the street. Set up a website to post videos of those that litter. Enforce the fucking law and give out tickets! And, add more trashcans.

  14. What happened to all the old ones that Newsom took off the street? Aren’t they already paid for, can’t we just put them back out on the street?

  15. If a “high-end” garbage bin @ $632/each is good enough for New York, it certainly would be good enough for San Francisco.

    We don’t need $3000 bins — San Francisco is simply not that “special”.

    Just buy the NYC-tested bins already!

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