By Linda Badger
It has become a common sight to see a public trash receptacle overflowing and garbage strewn across the sidewalk.
For decades, the City has been trying to solve the problem. It has tried removing public trash receptacles, increasing them and even outfitting them with sensors to let the SF Department of Public Works (DPW) know when they are full. Whatever is done, the problem never seems to abate.
In 2018, DPW reported that it gets more than 10,000 complaints annually that city trash receptacles are overflowing. Complaints increased significantly in 2021, with more than 17,000 reports to 311.org, of city cans overflowing with garbage.
As of October 2022, these complaints appear to be on the rise again, with 16,620 reports citywide so far this year. Nearly 12% of these complaints were from the Richmond District – higher than the number of complaints received from any other neighborhood in the City.
The Department of Public Works is planning to introduce new trash cans that have sensors which will alert the department when the receptacles are near capacity. The goal is to avoid trash containers that overflow onto the sidewalk. Photo by Linda Badger.
According to DPW, there are several contributors to this problem. Scavengers looking for recyclables or other valuables empty garbage from the city cans onto the sidewalk. Vandals break into the cans for no apparent reason. In addition, some residents or businesses, with insufficient garbage services or a load of extra trash, will stuff it into public trash receptacles. The cans overflow, especially when bags of trash are ripped open by scavengers (human and otherwise). Unfortunately, well-meaning neighbors who put food or clothing on top of public cans for the needy are also contributing to the problem. Overflowing garbage is a boon for rodents but a blight to our neighborhoods.
What can be done?
San Francisco’s Health Code requires all property owners to pay for adequate garbage services. Our laws also prohibit any resident from dumping their household trash in public receptacles. Municipal Police Code, Section 35A states: “It is unlawful for any person to deposit any household garbage, refuse, waste, sweepings or dirt collected within any residence, flat, apartment house, store or office building in, on top of, or alongside” the trash receptacles placed on the sidewalks by DPW. Violations of these laws can result in hundreds of dollars in penalties.
DPW’s Outreach and Enforcement Team is charged with preventing illegal dumping, enforcing city codes issuing citations and ensuring that all property owners maintain adequate garbage services. The department reported that it is working to quickly respond to residents’ complaints and to develop new technologies for determining when cans need servicing. It has set a goal to respond to “311” complaints to DPW regarding overflowing public trash cans within two business days. Looking at 311.org data, DPW and Recology appear to be meeting the goal. Since 2021, nearly 99% of complaints were resolved; 85% of which met the two-day goal.
According to Rachel Gordon from DPW, the agency is introducing new public trash cans that will help solve this problem.
“The new cans will be equipped with sensors that alert us to when they are nearing capacity, so we can empty it before it gets to the point of overflowing,” Gordon said. “We are looking for a design that will make the cans harder to rummage through so the garbage stays in the can.”
Until San Francisco’s high tech self-reporting garbage cans of the future come online, residents can be the instrument of change by calling 311, entering the complaint online at 311.org or downloading DPW’s SF311 app to a smart phone. Using the app, if someone sees an overflowing trash receptacle, they can pull out their phone, take a picture and send it – in real time – to 311. No need to include an address; GPS data will lead the way. Both Recology and DPW will address the complaint with DPW responsible for removing some of the trash until Recology can take care of the whole mess with its large trucks. The results of virtual trash abatement reports can be tracked via the app; 311.org will send a notice when the mess has been cleaned up.
Residents with too much garbage for the bins provided have options other than stuffing it into city receptacles and possibly facing fines. Recology suggests that “residents who consistently generate more material than fits in their bins can order larger sizes. The monthly cost depends on the type (recycling, composting, landfill) and size of bins.” To order bigger bins and to see how much it would cost, users can go to Recology’s online Residential Rate Estimator at recology.com; write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 415-330-1300.
Recology also offers a 25% low-income discount to SF residents. To determine if you are eligible, call or go online. If a renter’s landlord is refusing to provide adequate garbage services, DPW suggests alerting 311 about the problem.
Finally, if residents believe their block would benefit from an additional public can, they can call 311 and the request will be reviewed by DPW’s specialists who review the history of that location (in terms of illegal dumping, etc.) and then determine if placing a can is possible. Residents can also request that a public receptacle be removed. If DPW is made aware of “repeated problems with a can,” it might be removed altogether.