On one of San Francisco’s hottest days in recent memory, Vincent Yuen and a cadre of volunteers picked up hot trash: cigarette buts, miscellaneous plastic wraps and styrofoam peanuts. They did this along Mission street from sunup to sundown, from the Daly City border to The Embarcadero. That’s a trip of more than seven miles.
“Rain or shine or heat wave, no matter. If trash is out here, we’re out here,” Yuen said after chugging a 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade.
To ring in the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, Yuen organized a day-long trash pickup, starting at sunrise and going until sunset — 5:48 a.m. to 8:35 p.m. — and dubbed it “On a Mission On Mission.” By early afternoon, he had already made it halfway down Mission Street with more than 40 filled bags of garbage, the most he’s ever picked up during one of his cleanup days.
Yuen started picking up trash with his two daughters during the pandemic since they “got tired of riding bikes and gardening.” After founding a volunteer effort for cleaning the city, Refuse Refuse, Yuen gained support and a small following for picking up trash around the city within a year. Now picking up trash full-time, funded by TogetherSF, he says one of the major ways to reduce litter around the city is to get volunteers and residents to pick up trash along their block, in addition to reporting it via 311.
“Even though the majority of people do the right thing, most people will throw things away. But it’s just not enough, it’s just too much trash. We just need people to come out and clean,” he said.
By the time Yuen reached 24th and Mission streets, there were about 10 volunteers dressed in neon green vests that read, “Refuse Refuse Volunteer.” From second-graders to well-established San Franciscans, each came to help with making the Mission pristine. Some volunteers use trash “pickers” while others pick up each piece by hand. Yuen pulls a red cart filled with Giants trash bags, courtesy of ex-right fielder Hunter Pence, along with pickers, snacks and water bottles for volunteers.
“Cleaning the streets has always been a favorite hobby of mine. That and bike riding. I hope I can keep it up,” said Jim Boyer, a volunteer who regularly picks up trash with Yuen. “When I ran into him at one of the pickups, I was impressed with how good an organizer he is. He’s gotten a lot of people.”
Boyer started picking up trash in 2018 at beaches across the city, primarily Ocean Beach. While he focused most of his time cleaning up trash on the beach, he began to work in the streets after seeing Yuen doing it.
He tilts his brown fedora hat down, shading his face. “Today is a hot day. Usually I work in cool-weather avenues, so this is quite a challenge,” Boyer said. “But I like the challenge. I like picking up trash.”
Yuen shares the same sentiment. He says that now he can “turn off” the urge to pick up trash, reserving it for his working days. “Once you see it, it’s very hard to unsee,” he says. While cleaning the longest street in San Francisco, Yuen ties off an orange trash bag and lays it next to a city trash can. He continues walking north on Mission towards Sixth Street.
“We had a dirty street back there. We all came through, and now look at it. It’s clean. And yes, it’ll come back. But if we keep coming back, you just have a clean street.”
Here’s a schedule for cleanups with Refuse Refuse.