Refuse Refuse in Our City
Trash. It’s something everyone has to deal with. Unfortunately, in San Francisco we have a major problem with it getting into our streets and public spaces.
There are many reasons why keeping our environment clean is an immense and never-ending challenge. But there are solutions that can help us see meaningful results. My intention for this column is to help you understand why our neighborhoods are so dirty, why that matters and what San Franciscans can do about it.
I founded Refuse Refuse, a campaign that sets its sights on inspiring individuals to act and make a collective impact on keeping our city clean, healthy and safe.
The concept was born out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stuck at home with two daughters, ages 4 and 6 at the time, and after exhausting many of the conceivable outdoor, socially-distanced activities like bike riding, gardening, roller-skating, chalk drawing and hiking to name a few, I bought a couple of trash pickers and we started cleaning our block.
A friend and neighbor of ours used to walk our kids to Angela’s Children Center together and sometimes commented on all the trash we had to walk past and through. We discussed getting cleaning tools and picking it up, but we never did. The litter problem seemed to get worse during the pandemic. Maybe it was because we were in our own neighborhoods more and just started to take closer notice, which made me remember our conversations and spurred me to finally act.
And amazingly, it works! Our block that we regularly cleaned was noticeably cleaner and it took us less time to clean than when we first began. And that allowed us to be able to get out further into the neighborhood. One day, a neighbor, and now friend, called down and asked what we were doing. We explained we were picking up litter in the neighborhood and he asked if he could join us. We exchanged numbers and the following week we were cleaning side by side.
This got me thinking that if there were enough neighbors willing to go out and pick up the trash they see instead of walking past it, as we had always done before, maybe we could have clean streets in San Francisco. So I started to research ways that cities and societies manage their waste. I discovered that the model of residents taking personal responsibility – in addition to public services – can achieve astonishing results.
Japan has an intense focus on cleanliness with an elaborate system of sorting trash, imprinting early on students to clean their own schools, and organizations like Greenbird that maintain a schedule of regular community cleanups.
It’s true that the SF Department of Public Works, Recology and other city services can always do better. But I argue that we as residents have much more to contribute, especially when the city ordinance is that residents and merchants are responsible for cleanliness in front of their homes or places of business. Once you join one of our neighborhood cleanups, you’ll quickly realize that there is just too much trash to expect the government to handle alone.
Since April of 2021, we’ve supported more than 600 neighborhood cleanups, activated more than 4,500 unique volunteers, and collected more than 120,000 gallons of trash (9,200 13-gallon trash bags) from our neighborhoods, parks and public spaces.
Because I live in the Richmond, we’ve organized close to 100 cleanups locally. And in the Sunset, there is a good group of regular organizers who have organized dozens of cleanups, with more to come. In areas that we clean regularly, we see a 50-75% reduction in trash levels.
So, stay tuned for updates and for opportunities to get involved in keeping San Francisco clean. We all deserve a clean and healthy environment, but we have to be intentional about it if we want results. This is a way to demonstrate your love for our City. It’s a forever effort, a lifestyle, and something I hope someday will result in San Francisco having a reputation as being one of the cleanest cities in the world.
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Vince Yuen is the founder of Refuse Refuse, a campaign that organizes neighborhood cleanups and educates fellow residents how to keep San Francisco clean. He lives in the Inner Richmond with his wife and two young children.