The Salt and Pepper near Dolores Park. Photo by Melissa Perez. Photo taken on July 27, 2022.

So far, the city’s spendy trash can prototypes elicit questions about price, but at least two hold up as well as the inexpensive off-the-shelf models. 

After spending $550,000 for “graffiti-resistant trash cans,” at least one of the city’s uniquely designed, costly bins has failed that test, and another model seems no more efficient than the older bins nearby, according to residents using the cans.  

The “Bachelor”-esque contest to help find the city’s best garbage bin will run from July 18 to September 17. The host: San Francisco Public Works.

Over the next two months, San Franciscans will decide on which bin of trash we shall bestow a rose. The options pit three prototypes, which the city spent $550,000 to develop, against three off-the-shelf models. The ultimate cost of the mass-produced cans will be well below the cost of the uniquely designed prototypes. How much is unclear. During the hearings to approve the cans, the estimates ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 per can.

You might be thinking, “Trash cans are trash cans. They just need to get the job done.” No, no, no.  These prototypes aren’t like other trash cans in the world, according to Public Works officials who spoke at a forum earlier this month at Manny’s Cafe. They’re special.  

“This is going to be history in the making,” said Alison Mickels, a supervisor for Public Works Street Environmental Services Operations.

Public Works pitched the garbage cans as durable and designed to last up to 25 years on San Francisco’s punishing sidewalks. While happy with some of the offerings, locals also described the prototypes as “something from outer space” and wondered about the price tag. 

You can visit them at any of the 26 points around the city, and register your thoughts by using the QR code on each.

On Wednesday, nine days into the experiment, Mission Local visited all six bins stationed in the Mission District. We found the following.

The Soft Square (Prototype cost: $20,900. The final, mass-produced can will be from $2,000 to $5,000)

The Soft Square at 16th and Mission streets. Photo by Melissa Perez. Taken on July 27, 2022.

By last Wednesday, Vandals had already hit Soft Square, located on the northwest corner of 16th and Mission streets. Entirely enclosed, it has a foot pedal for hands-free use. 

When Mission Local visited the can, the sides were already vandalized with graffiti and smeared in garbage juice leaking from within. 

Also, scratches covered its lithe exterior. That was the work of rats, Mission resident Paula Groves guessed. 

A Public Works employee, Ronnie Rodriguez, was at the scene filing a report on the 311 app. “I was here last night, and it was fine. This morning it has graffiti on it, so hopefully, they get this cleaned up ASAP.”  

By Tuesday of this week, the bin was still marked with graffiti.

Even with its smooth edges and useful compartments, locals couldn’t wrap their heads around the price tag. 

”The price seems a bit high for a trash can,” Mario Francisco Caballero said. Then he shrugged. “But we’re talking about a city government here, so they have enough money for it.”

The Slim Silhouette (Prototype cost: $18,800. The final, mass-produced can will be from $2,000 to $5,000)

The Slim Silhouette on California and  Locust streets. Photo by Christine Delianne. Taken August 1, 2022.

The Slim Silhouette has yet to appear in the Mission, so we visited one at California and Locust streets in the Laurel Heights neighborhood. It was spotless and in tip-top shape when we visited on Monday, a sign of continuous maintenance, according to one of the bookstore clerks who works at nearby Books Inc. The design is functional: one hole for recyclables, and another to insert trash. 

A group of teenagers hanging outside the Panda Express nearby said the trash can looked like a silver bug with beady eyes. I say it looks like Wall-E.  It’s unclear what manner of refuse belongs in what hole, since you can’t see inside the bin. Once the garbage goes down the chute, it vanishes from sight. With few access points, the bin is quite tamper-proof.

The Salt & Pepper (Prototype cost: $11,000. The final, mass-produced can will be from $2,000 to $5,000)

The Salt and Pepper near Dolores Park. Photo by Melissa Perez. Photo taken on July 27, 2022.

The Salt and Pepper, on the northeast corner of Dolores Park, also seemed to fare well. Barrel-shaped with vertical ridges, it’s difficult for rodents to climb up, said one resident. 

A round compartment on top is reserved for recyclables, with just enough space for a decently-sized hand to slide through. The trash can looked tidy and the can was relatively empty when we visited.

Dianne Felix, who has lived on the corner of 18th Street for 45 years; however, found the price to be a problem. 

“You know how many people we could feed with $10,000?” she asked. “Just stay with the old school, the old school works fine.”

For her, the green plastic recycling bins lined up along the street near the park sufficed.

In questioning the price, Felix repeated the sentiments of many of the other locals. She’d rather see the money invested in getting the homeless people off the street or improving city transit or more affordable housing. 

And, if these pricey cans are about beautifying the city, “It doesn’t look pretty,” Felix said. “These look nuclear.” 

The off-the-shelf models

The Ren Bin ($2,800)

The Ren Bin on Potrero and 24th streets. Photo by Melissa Perez. Taken on July 27, 2022.

The Ren Bin at Potrero and 24th streets has a larger opening at the top than any of the city’s prototypes, and some local businesses were already complaining about the odors escaping from this particular bin.

“The smell is bad for business,” said Muhammad, who runs a convenience store on 24th Street. It could, however, just be the garbage from that day. And, on that Wednesday at 1 p.m. the Ren Bin was already overflowing with used paper cups and trash bags. 

When we revisited a week later on Wednesday, the can wasn’t in better shape. It was still full and exuding a foul odor. 

But is that a problem with the bin — or not enough pick-ups? Around the corner, one of the city’s much-maligned current batch of  “Renaissance” cans looked pristine beneath some shade and was practically empty.

Wire Mesh ($630)

The Wire Mesh at 18th and Connecticut streets. Photo by Melissa Perez. Taken on July 27, 2022.

The cheapest off-the-shelf model is the Wire Mesh, which stands about three feet tall.  One was set out on 18th and Connecticut. It looked modern and simple and blended in nicely on a street lined with restaurants. On Wednesday, the bin was half-full and there was no garbage nearby. 

Ata Hamdan, who runs Cracked & Battered restaurant nearby, said there were no foul odors, even without a lid. 

Even its modest cost, however, elicited skepticism from Hamdan. 

“Shouldn’t we be spending that money on something else?” he asked. 

Like what? 

“Like, anything?”

The BearSaver ($1,950)

The Bear Saver at Fifth and Mission streets. Photo by Christine Delianne. Taken August 2, 2022.

The Bear Saver blends in with other green bike boxes that lined the Market and Mission area. It doesn’t stand out as a trash can: hence the trash label on this off-the-shelf model. 

The opening shuts tight. The Bear Saver shares similar features to the Soft Square but perhaps requires more exertion to use. Users can either pull a small lever, similar to a soft serve machine, that opens the garbage slot, or use the handle attached to the bin to open the lid. 

While offering two manual options to operate a bin is useful (a fail-safe of some sorts in case one or the other breaks) including a “hands-free” option or foot pedal offered by the Soft Square feels more useful. 

We’ll check back in with the bins near the end of the two-month test. 

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Christine flew across the country from Long Island to the Bay Area for college. She is a junior at Stanford University, where she served as the Managing Editor for the student newspaper. Before joining Mission, she covered breaking news as an intern at Bay City News and The Sacramento Bee.

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  1. Newsracks, bike rings and trash cans all contracts and specialty items and who paid for what and who profited and what is a current waste. Newsracks remain empty, bike hoops remain empty and trash cans remain overloaded and ignored…

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  2. I vote for more money being spent on more trashcans . I think that you could probably buy at least 10 of the standard plain vanilla trash cans for every one of the hi tec devices that claim to be grafitti and rat resistant when there is clear evidence already that they arent. Just think if we had more trashcans instead of more fancy ones!!!
    I also think that it would be well spent money to emtpy them more so they are not overflowing gee whiz mom doesnt anyone in city government have any common sense?

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  3. I personally don’t like any of these garbage cans. They too expensive. And a waste of money, the current ones work, have for many years. The city itself needs to be clean (streets in every single way), putting a new shiny super expensive garbage can is not going to make it look better!

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  4. There are two critical considerations that deserve more weight in the discussion. First, cans get tagged with graffiti very often. The current cans are easy to paint over with ‘garbage green’ paint. All of these newer can designs would require ‘cleaning’ the graffiti with solvents, which is much more work, and takes much longer (i.e. won’t happen consistently) The shapes do make them less attractive as graffiti targets, but likely not enough to really dissuade the taggers. Second, all of these can have small openings. This is probably on purpose, to prevent them from being used for household and commercial garbage. However, the people of San Francisco are apparently not (currently) able to handle their own household and commercial garbage – and so we’ll likely just end up with larger bags of trash sitting beside all of these new cans.

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  5. I’d be happy if the City just emptied the trash cans out more often and cleaned them periodically so people wouldn’t be scared to touch them accidentally. Whatever the form the can takes I don’t care too much, although I do like the ones with foot pedals which I’ve seen on some UC campuses. The prices are ridiculous but I get the sense that San Francisco is quite resistant to efficiency and frugality.

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  6. Salt & Pepper for the win. 60s chic and not appealing to rats or vandals. The city is going to drop a money bomb on this, so they had better choose something that doesn’t double as a graffiti post or rodent’s nest.

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  7. Calling these trash cans “history in the making” is another example of San Francisco’s undeserved grandiosity. The other thing that DPW doesn’t get is that trash cans work only if people use them and they are emptied.

    This publicity stunt is just another colossal waste of taxpayer dollars.

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  8. > “This is going to be history in the making,” said Alison Mickels, a supervisor for Public Works Street Environmental Services Operations.

    What’s great is that in five years, her replacement will be able to make a similar statement about the trashcans they purchase then to replace these!

    2027: We’re so proud our new trashcans will be ratproof/durable/graffitiproof/odorfree/cheaper/larger/ then the 2022 cans my predecessor purchased — Bob, supervisor, Public Works

    And then just like Ann, Bob will be able to put on his resume that he oversaw a $50,000,000 trashcan renewal project for the city of San Francisco.

    This is called management by resume

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