Can New Trash Cans Clean up S.F. Streets?

‘Slim Silhouette,’ ‘Soft Square,’ and ‘Salt & Pepper’ are the names of revamped bin designs aimed at curbing the city’s litter problem.

In the coming year, San Franciscans will encounter a new squad of public health defenders on the streets. One is tall and slender. Another has a curvy hourglass figure. You might admire one’s snorkel-shaped throat, or another’s quarter-inch metal fins.

They’re meant to be approachable.

Slim Silhouette, Soft Square, and Salt & Pepper are their names, and they’re the top contenders for San Francisco’s new public trash can. After a tryout period, San Francisco Public Works will deploy one of these designs — or a remixed version with the best features of all three — replacing the green receptacles currently seen on city streets. 

With national attention fixated on the science of vaccine development and the logistical challenges of dose distribution, it is easy to overlook the street-level public health consequences of a dysfunctional waste management system. But everything from the design of trash bins, to peoples’ interactions with them, to the question of whether they should be on the streets at all, plays a role in community health.

Totally Trashed

San Francisco has a reputation for dirty streets. In 2018, an NBC Bay Area survey of downtown concluded that there was “trash on every block.” In 2019, 57 percent of respondents to the Office of the Controller’s most recent City Survey said that the streets had become dirtier in the prior two years. 

And that was all before COVID-19 introduced disposable personal protective equipment to the masses. Crumpled face masks and used gloves are now ubiquitous among the battered boxes and broken furniture that residents regularly see piled against the city’s exhausted green trash cans. 

The rollout of three new prototype cans is a good time for the San Francisco Public Works to ask what, if any, public health outcomes they are looking to achieve, says Dr. Lee Riley, head of the Division of Infectious Disease and Vaccinology in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley.  

In 2018, Riley spoke to NBC Bay Area for their report on street cleanliness, unfavorably comparing street contamination in San Francisco to less-resourced communities in Brazil, Kenya, and India, where he had completed research. 

“In those communities, I’m always struck that they’re relatively clean,” he says, whereas in San Francisco, “You have one of the richest cities in the world, and yet you have parts of it where the cleanliness is worse, or at the same level, as some of the urban slums of the world.”

A trash can alone won’t solve underlying social issues that lead to garbage-strewn streets. They can’t address housing insecurity or unhoused people’s lack of ownership over the environment in which they live — two of the reasons Riley suspects some neighborhoods have excess trash. 

You can’t generalize, he acknowledges. Not all neighborhoods in San Francisco deal with poor street cleanliness at the same level. But he also points out that garbage issues aren’t restricted to just one place: “Even in the nicest neighborhoods, people dump trash next to the trash cans.”

Broken Bins

There are now more than 3,000 green city trash cans on San Francisco streets, says Beth Rubenstein, Deputy Director of Policy and Communications for San Francisco Public Works. But a redesign has been in the works for a few years, because the cans have a major problem. 

“They’re not streetworthy, as it turns out,” she says. 

The locks and hinges break through usage and vandalism. They attract illegal dumping. And their wide mouths make it easy for people to reach in and sift through the can, which can result in a can’s contents spilling out onto the street.

“Rummaging is a problem,” says Rubenstein. “It’s not safe for the people rummaging, and it’s not safe for the people on the sidewalk.” 

‘Salt & Pepper,’ ‘Slim Silhouette,’ and ‘Soft Square.’ Photo courtesy of Public Works

These days, those insides often include PPE that could have been covering someone’s nose and mouth moments before. The good news is that on its own, a single mask on the ground is probably not going to infect passersby with the novel coronavirus. “I can’t think of these inanimate objects as being a major source for the COVID virus,” Riley says. “I don’t know of any evidence of transmission of COVID from inanimate objects, from trash, or PPE.”

Risk to the community lies in the volume. In a blog post encouraging reusable masks, the San Francisco Department of the Environment cited a study suggesting that if the U.S. matched Wuhan’s medical waste output during its COVID-19 peak, our country could produce a year’s worth of medical waste — five million tons — in two months. 

The repercussions of excess waste are widespread in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission warns that littler clogs basins and storm drains, resulting in “neighborhood flooding and pollution of our waterways.” And the California Coastal Commission says that 80 percent of the blame for ocean pollution comes from land-based sources: litter, industrial discharge, and “garbage management (ill-fitting trash can lids, etc.).”

That’s why functionality matters. A good design helps keep the lid on trash in all neighborhoods at once.

Design Over Detritus

San Francisco Public Works tasked the Institute for Creative Integration, an Oakland industrial design firm, with creating options that were rummage-resistant, discouraged dumping, and were easy for both the public and trash collection staff to handle. “Slim Silhouette” and “Salt & Pepper” both have chute or snorkel openings to prevent people from reaching deep inside the can. “Soft Square” resembles the Bigbelly cans that the city — in partnership with community benefit district organizations — purchased for some neighborhoods. It’s a mailbox-style concept that prevents rummaging, but may be a magnet for graffiti, Rubenstein says.

But a lesson that the U.S. has learned with great difficulty during the pandemic is that individual behaviors affect entire communities when it comes to health. Even with a perfect design, people need to interact effectively with trash cans, or they won’t work.

In a counterintuitive example of how one of the world’s largest cities managed to beat litter, Riley points to Japan’s capital.

“If you go to Tokyo, you don’t see trash cans anywhere,” he says. “And yet it’s one of the cleanest cities in the world.”

In 1995, cities in Japan removed many public trash cans after the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult released deadly sarin gas inside the Tokyo Metro. The attacks killed 13 people, and trash receptacles represented a possible security risk. While 26 years have passed since the attacks, the cans never returned in large numbers. The cultural norm is to carry your trash with you until you can dispose of it, says Riley. 

“The complete absence of cans actually forces people to behave better and take care of their trash themselves,” he says. “To litter is really so anti-social, and you’d be ostracized.”

Rubenstein is familiar with Tokyo’s approach. But she and Riley are both skeptical that this cultural shift could occur in San Francisco. In fact, the city already attempted this in 2007, Rubenstein says, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom was interested in that exact idea.

“We removed, I think, several hundred public cans — that was maybe about 10 percent of the cans on the street — just to see if it would deter bad behavior,” she says. 

However, she continues, “It’s a little bit like, ‘If we remove benches, people won’t be unhoused.’ At least for our culture, it doesn’t necessarily work.”

At any rate, the backlash from businesses and the Board of Supervisors was immediate. The trash cans returned. Now it’s time to improve on what we’ve got.

Trial Run

Trash can boot camp is the next step. Within four to six months, Rubenstein hopes, Public Works will place fifteen cans — five of each prototype — strategically throughout the city. Then it’s up to residents, visitors, and the elements to do their worst. Data collected by Public Works, with input from the Controller’s office, will determine how the prototypes are performing.

Rubenstein acknowledges that even the best trash can won’t solve every problem. But in a time when sanitation, disease, and pollution are top of mind, every foot soldier in the fight for public health matters. Rubenstein will consider the effort a success if the new cans prove durable, easy to service, hard to vandalize, and appealing. Meaning, she says, that “residents and visitors find it attractive and easy to use… and it doesn’t gross them out.”

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