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The Sordid Saga of San Francisco's Trash Cans

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The green 'renaissance' trash cans have been on San Francisco's streets since 1993. (Christopher J. Beale/KQED)

San Francisco’s trash cans have problems. From debris littering the streets around them, to the — more often than not — broken recycling compartments, these green garbage receptacles are past their intended life span. In 2022, San Francisco is nearing the end of a years-long replacement process designed (in part) to clean up San Francisco’s streets, and years of corruption.

The dirty backstory behind the ubiquitous green cans

Since first appearing on San Francisco streets in 1993, the current cans — called “renaissance cans” by city officials — have been a sore spot for neighborhood groups and officials like District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, who says, “Sometimes [the trash cans are] part of the problem.”

A walk through any of San Francisco’s dense neighborhoods reveals a slew of issues surrounding trash. Rachel Gordon, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, says that her department picks up “about 90,000 pounds of litter and debris a week” from the streets of San Francisco and knows that the old cans just aren’t up to the job anymore.

A ‘renaissance’ trash can surrounded by garbage in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. (Christopher J. Beale/KQED)


Part of the issue with these cans has to do with the maintenance of them, which the city contracts out to a third party.

“The contract for these [renaissance] trash cans came about in a way that very possibly could have been corrupt,” said Supervisor Haney.

Walter Wong was a permit expediter in San Francisco who pleaded guilty in 2020 to charges of conspiracy. He — and then-director of the Department of Public Works, Mohammed Nuru — worked together to trade city contract gifts. The contract to maintain San Francisco’s trash cans went to a company called Alternate Choice LLC — owned by a family member of Wong — in 2018.

A ‘big belly’ trash can in District 6. (Christopher J. Beale/KQED)

City supervisors like Haney tried for years to get the trash cans in their districts replaced with newer, more effective models but say it was Nuru who stood in the way.

“He was adamant in his protection of these broken trash cans. And I think it was pretty clear that he was protecting his buddies who were giving us really crappy cans,” Haney said.

Wong is now participating with federal investigators in the corruption probe against Nuru, who pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges earlier this year after being arrested and indicted in 2020.

The road to the perfect can

Nuru did eventually set into motion a process to replace San Francisco’s green renaissance cans with some new ones. But, off-the-rack cans — the kind you might find in another American city — weren’t considered suitable for the project.

The Department of Public Works want something tamper-proof, with wheels on the inner can so workers won’t get hurt emptying them, and a sensor that can tell when they’re full. Oh, and they have to be attractive. The department commissioned a custom-designed can.

The prototypes will cost an estimated $12,000 each and will be fabricated locally and tested alongside some off-the-rack designs. Gordon says the prototypes do cost a lot of money. “I don’t think anyone can say otherwise. But will it be money well spent? We hope so,” she said.

After prototyping, the selected can’s manufacturing is expected to cost less than half of the prototype, which is comparable to the price paid in other U.S. cities.

The three trash can prototypes that will be created and tested in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Institute for Creative Integration)

This new-can-selection process has its critics. Supervisor Haney said, “Ultimately, San Francisco shouldn’t be in the trash can making business. The conditions that we face on our streets are not fundamentally different than an LA and New York, or Chicago, D.C., Oakland, and there is plenty of data that we can look at in terms of prototypes, but here we are.”

The new cans

Three new trash can prototypes are being considered, with hopes they can solve many of the problems presented by the current cans.

The Salt & Pepper has a durable frame with minimal surface area for graffiti, the Slim Silhouette features a slim profile for less of a sidewalk footprint, and the Soft Square adds a foot pedal.

The work of making the new trash cans was just handed off from industrial designers to the team at APROE (Advanced Prototype Engineering), a shop founded by San Francisco native Mose O’Griffin. “I went to Galileo High School. I founded this shop in 2006 and it’s been a long, slow crawl to get here. So I’m really proud of what it’s become,” he said.

O’Griffin and his team will take the designs made by the industrial designers and turn them into engineering drawings, the kind that can be used to create actual objects.

O’Griffin says every step in the process for creating a unique, one-of-a-kind trash can is being priced out, but “we’re going to try as hard as we can to, to stay within the bounds of those shapes and materials [outlined by the industrial designers], selections, and all those things, and try to figure out how to get them manufactured for the prices that they’ve set out.”

The new cans will be out on the street testing in different neighborhoods as soon as they are done, but there’s no official word on exactly when that will be.

After decades of dysfunction, corruption and politics, the end may be in sight for those unsightly green renaissance trash cans. Will the next generation of cans clean up San Francisco’s streets? Well, not unless our behavior as citizens changes, says Gordon.

“So let’s set public expectations. Garbage cans, new or old, are not going to clean up the streets of San Francisco, but it’s a tool to help us keep the city clean,” she said.

The rest is up to us.

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