When San Francisco’s quest to find the perfect trash can began in 2018, the Public Works Department struggled to find off-the-shelf cans that fulfilled their stringent criteria. Its perfect can would be tamper-resistant, durable, cost-effective, able to accommodate a rolling toter, fitted with a sensor to check when the bin was full — and pretty.

Mohammed Nuru, then director and now accused federal criminal, decided at the time that the city should build its own cans instead of buying off the shelf. This summer, the Board of Supervisors approved the second stage of that process: building five prototypes each of three new designs at a cost of $12,000 to $20,000 a can. These will be tested alongside off-the-shelf models. 

The estimate of what the custom cans will cost once they go to mass manufacturing to replace the city’s 3,300 public cans has been a moving target. It started at $1,000 a can when the project was announced, moved to $3,000 to $5,000 during hearings this summer, and then slid back down to $2,000 to $3,000 in the week after the hearings.

At the time of the vote this summer, the department did not have a list of possible off-the-shelf contenders. But, over the past few weeks, Public Works officials have been reaching out to trash can suppliers to find out what is available.

“It seems to me that they are looking at all the options,” said one industry executive. “They looked at the expensive options, and now they are looking at the sensible options.”

Public Works has not yet released details on which cans it is investigating. In the meantime, we have put together a list of some options that may fit the city’s requirements. As it turns out, all the cans on our list are already being used somewhere in San Francisco.

1. The Cart Garage

The Cart Garage, photo courtesy of BearSaver.

Steve Thompson, director of marketing and sales at BearSaver and Securr, said that he has already supplied more than 700 trash cans to San Francisco and the surrounding area. Different models of his heavy-duty cans can be seen throughout the city’s parks.

Thompson was positive about his relationship with the city and the Public Works Department. “They are really good people to work with,” he said.

Originally created for keeping bears out of trash, his Cart Garage bins are now being used in urban areas across the country. A trial of the bins has been running for six months in Downtown Los Angeles. In Portland, they have been customized with designs by a local artist.

Thompson acknowledges that the cans are not as pretty as the custom designs created by the Public Works Department, but insists that their practicality more than makes up for it. His company avoids raw stainless steel, he said, because it is difficult to keep it looking fresh.

“Some of the designs they came up with are beautiful,” he said. “But in the real world, those things are going to get destroyed.”

Thompson puts the ballpark price of his cans at $1,600 — at least $400, and maybe as much as $3,400, less than the custom bins are estimated to cost.

2. The Metro

One version of the Metro in Crissy Field, photo courtesy of Forms+Surfaces.

This trash can was designed for San Francisco by Forms+Surfaces in the early 2000s. According to Territory Manager Michael Risso, around 60 of the cans found a home in Golden Gate Park and a few other nearby parks. They have been used for well over a decade.

The bin can accommodate a rolling toter — a big sticking point for lots of off-the-shelf models — and could also be fitted with a sensor.

“This container is very customizable,” said Risso. Multiple versions have been used in the city, including one with a recycling receptacle at the top.

Back when the model was created, Risso said that it cost around $1,000 per can. However, he cautioned against comparing those prices with today, due in large part to the recent tripling of steel prices. He was unsure of its current cost.

He did say, however, that he would be surprised if the custom-designed, raw stainless steel bins could be built for less.

3. The Bigbelly

Bigbelly bin designs, courtesy of Tenderloin Community Benefit District. Artwork by Ink Dwell.

On the surface, these bins fulfill most of the requirements of the Public Works Department. They are fitted with sensors, are tough, and can be modified with artwork that reflects the surrounding community. However, they have previously been dismissed by Public Works as too costly.

It is true that there is a premium on these cans. According to John Bustamante, a trash can with full Smart Bin capabilities could cost up to $4,500. However, he noted that they can hold three times as much capacity as traditional bins because of their ability to crush waste.

The bins have been popular in many areas of San Francisco. Bustamante estimated that around 650 bins are in use throughout the city, including in the Tenderloin, where local artists have added their designs to the bins. Most Bigbellies in the city have been funded through Community Benefit Districts.

The Bigbellies are, as you might expect, big, so they are not ideal for all of San Francisco’s narrower streets. But the company hopes to work with the Public Works department to find areas where they could help.

“We offered our consulting services to the Department of Public Works free of charge,” said Bustamante, “but so far they have not taken up our offer.”

4. Adding sensors to existing bins

A Renaissance can fitted with a sensor, photo by Will Jarrett.

In 2019, the city tested attaching 1,000 Nordsense sensors to its existing trash cans. These sensors were designed to send an alert when the trash can was close to overflowing. Some 630 of those sensors are still attached to Public Works’ trash cans today.

According to Nordsense, the trial was successful, leading to an 80 percent decrease in overflowing trash from the tracked cans. The sensors cost only $110 each, and they last seven years, on average. Rolling these sensors out for our current bins could see a reduction in spilled trash at around one-twentieth the cost of the custom-designed bins.

Beth Rubenstein, Deputy Director of Policy and Communications for Public Works, said that this option is not on the table. “For a variety of important reasons — durability, being tamper-proof, using a rolling toter — it was determined that the current cans do not adequately address our trash can needs,” Rubenstein wrote in an email.

It remains to be seen which cans the Public Works Department decides to test. Rubenstein wrote in September that the department did not yet have a final list. But it seems that viable cans are available, and that the city is starting to hone in on its options.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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  1. Big belly or bust…it’s the only can that fill the this city’s needs of high volume and deterring trash pickers/ mentally ill folks who dump garbage all over and walk away.

  2. I’ve been greatly enjoying mission local’s coverage of the trashcan issue but I think there’s a missing question- how do the operating costs change between the fancy cans and the basic ones? Can the expensive cans pay for themselves through lower labor costs? I kind of doubt it but worth asking, i think.

  3. pilfer/pick-proof trash cans, please, please, please!!!
    on my corner, on Tender Nob, there is more trash around the trash can than inside. every single day! right next to a bus stop, when passengers exit the muni bus they often have to wade through garbage.
    this is due to people pulling trash out of the receptacle for whatever reason…
    only in SF one can observe this behavior and such dirty streets.
    that is the not so new normal.
    nowhere in the world in the world is something like this going on, at least in the environs of normal cities and towns. not in europa, not in latin america, not in south east asia.