Rubbish odyssey: San Francisco’s weird, pricey quest for the right trash can

Here was the plan being described to him, as far as Supervisor Matt Haney could parse it: In late 2018, San Francisco had embarked on a quest to design its own garbage can — from scratch. By the summer of 2021, two-and-a-half years later, an industrial design firm had completed the conceptual drawings for three models. In July, the Board of Supervisors would vote on spending $427,500, much of it to manufacture and test five prototypes of each model. The price tag for each prototype was estimated at between $12,000 to $20,000 apiece.

That was, in fact, the plan. So, Haney was confused. 

“I realize we’re pretty far down the path here already,” he said at a Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee meeting July 21. “But why did we choose this path to begin with? And why are we still doing this rather than putting out a bunch of different types of cans that already are produced, that are much cheaper, that are already performing well … in some other place … and then making a decision based on this? This is a very expensive, much longer, uncertain process that we’ve chosen.”

The Public Works department had an answer: Those other cans? Not sexy enough.  

San Francisco is “obviously very unique, and we weren’t happy with the look of those cans,” said then-interim Director Alaric Degrafinried, referring to the aesthetics of the off-the-shelf models. 

Some of the existing cans — the ones that cost much, much less than our prototypes and have performed ably elsewhere — may fulfill the actual, functional requirements of a trash can. But, again: Not sexy enough.    

They may not “necessarily be as pretty and as pleasing to the eye as the cans that are being designed for us right now,” Degrafinried said.

Six days later, Haney again questioned the process. “It was a decision that was made by the former DPW (Public Works) director” — accused federal criminal Mohammed Nuru — “and was a decision that the current DPW leadership is not even fully aware of in terms of why that decision was made.”

Still, Haney, like all his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, approved the plan to spend $427,500. We’re moving forward in the next stage: prototype manufacturing and testing of the cans we opted to redesign from scratch. Why? 

This is a story examining San Francisco’s bizarre pursuit of the perfect trash can: the time it has taken, the stunning amount of money being spent, and the baffling lack of curiosity on the part of many of San Francisco’s elected representatives and media observers in questioning the proposal by San Francisco Public Works to spend $427,500 to produce 15 prototype cans. Ultimately, San Francisco will spend millions of dollars to custom-produce 3,300 public trash for its use. 

How many millions remains an open question: The city’s initial request for proposals, in 2018, envisioned a top price tag of less than $1,000 a can. But that price has at least doubled, and could now hit as high as $5,000 a can, Public Works administrators indicated in the discussions on the process. They have since stepped back from those statements, but really, no one knows how much the cans will ultimately cost. 

What we have are estimates. San Francisco will spend from $6.6 million to $16.5 million to replace the city’s existing public trash cans, and those are estimates made at the present moment. Who knows what things will cost when the manufacturing actually commences. 

“The idea that San Francisco is so unique that we need a separate trash can from anyone deployed in any city around the world is preposterous,” Haney told Mission Local this month. “It’s something that reflects a broader and deeper brokenness of city government and the services it provides.”

Why did San Francisco decide to design its own trash can? 

The final decision on San Francisco designing its own trash can was made in 2018 by then-Public Works boss Nuru. While staff contributed input, Public Works spokeswoman Beth Rubenstein said, the last word went to Nuru, who, in January 2020, was arrested by the FBI and charged by the Department of Justice with fraud and lying to a federal agent. ​If convicted, he faces up to 25 years for various schemes, gifts and bribes; Nuru was the first domino to fall in San Francisco’s ongoing federal corruption scourge. 

While we cannot know what was in Nuru’s head in 2018, the fraud charges and litany of horrific details revealed by local and federal probing since January 2020 might have suggested to supervisors in 2021 that they take a closer look at the $427,500 they were being asked to spend at Nuru’s insistence. 

Already, they knew, Nuru had been responsible for a $5.2 million contract to buy the earlier, much-maligned “Renaissance” trash cans from Alternative Choice. That company, intriguingly, is under the aegis of former permit expediter and contractor Walter Wong, a longtime Nuru running buddy who has since pleaded guilty to federal fraud and money-laundering charges, and has cooperated with the feds to take down other San Francisco city officials. 

Other than Haney, however, no one appeared inclined to buck a decision Nuru had made. And, while Haney raised salient questions during hearings, he never pressed hard for answers — and, like his 10 colleagues, eventually voted to stay the course.   

Rubenstein from Public Works explained that in 2018, the department could not find a trash can that fulfilled an exacting list of features: a rolling inside can for easy emptying, a sensor to alert workers when a can is full, durability to withstand street life, and be tamper-proof. 

And “obviously,” she added, “they needed to be aesthetic.”

There were no off-the-shelf models that met most of those requirements, except for the Bigbelly. But those, at a cost of about $3,900 a can, were deemed too expensive. Nor were they particularly attractive, she said. The PEL can also fit most of the requirements. It costs $6,400, Rubenstein wrote in an email. At present, she wrote, these were “the only two off-the-shelf cans that we’ve found that come close to satisfying most of our programmatic requirements.”

Bigbelly cans are now used by several San Francisco Community Benefit Districts, which impose a local tax on businesses to cover special services, such as extra trash collection and street cleaning. The Tenderloin Community Benefit District, for example, installed 68 Bigbelly cans in a 26-block area. It rents them for $150 a month, or $1,800 a year each.    

Trash talk

Are we comfortable with a trash can that is effective, but it may not look as attractive on the streets?

Then-Interim Public Works Director Alaric Degrafinried

In many ways, replaying the meetings in which the city’s elected representatives discuss the decision to move forward on a $427,500 expenditure that will lead to a potentially far greater expenditure was reminiscent of Joan Didion’s scathing 1996 review of Bob Woodward’s style of portraying political events through the eyes of the main actors. She refers to Woodward as a stenographer rather than an inquisitive journalist. “These are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent,” she wrote in the New York Review of Books. The same could be said of the discussions at the July 21 Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance committee and the July 27 full board meeting. 

With the exception of Haney, who received virtually no assistance from his colleagues, the supervisors focused on the existing cans, blaming them for the city’s trash problems. In both meetings, the green-hued, so-called Renaissance cans purchased from the Wong-associated company took on an anthropomorphic role of a wayward resident: unattractive, prone to create trash and attract dumping, and requiring far too much upkeep. 

San Francisco’s existing trash cans. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

At the July 21 meeting, District 11 supervisor Ahsha Safaí lamented that the current trash cans “blended so much into the landscape that at some point, in many ways, they just weren’t necessarily something that people respected and people used in the right way.” 

“They often make areas more dirty, not less,” added District 9 Supervisor Hllary Ronen at the full board meeting. 

Residents, then, were not to blame for dumping; the current trash cans caused dumping. Public Works and Recology were not responsible for failing to pick up trash, the trash cans created trash. 

Only District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar suggested that other factors might be in play. “ I just hope that we also pay attention to the picking up of the trash in those new, more attractive and better-designed cans,” she said. 

In the end, Degrafinried lamented, “we” have to make a decision. The “we,” in this case, appeared to be the supervisors. The decision, from Degrafinreid’s point of view, was this: “Are we comfortable with a trash can that is effective, but it may not look as attractive on the streets?”

His assertions might have elicited further questions from our elected supes on the alternatives; on what Public Works had learned in the nearly three-year process about the other available cans, such as prices and consumer satisfaction in the cities that used them; on whether San Francisco’s exacting requirements were simply too demanding; on how the initial $1,000 cost constraints in the RFP had spiraled out of control. 

But no one pressed Degrafinried.

Haney’s challenges also opened a door to potential follow-up questions: “One of the designs, it’s almost identical to a style that is in Washington, D.C.,” he offered at that same meeting. “So it’s just a surprise to me that there weren’t other ways to do this.”

Neither Safaí nor Gordon Mar, his colleagues on the Budget and Finance committee, pursued mention of the D.C. can (it costs $987, but has no sensor) or the other alternatives, including New York’s  $632 can, Sacramento’s $1,300 can; or the Los Angeles model at $449.51. Again, San Francisco simply wanted more than any of these other models offered. 

Instead of probing, Safaí spent most of his time making it clear that he wanted the prototypes tested in his district. 

“They look sleek, clean, (and it) looks like they’re easy to service and maintain and monitor,” Safaí said of the cans that are, indeed, sleek and appear to check nearly all the boxes of what Public Works wanted. “Appear,” however, is the operative word. They are only conceptual designs. As of yet, not even engineering drawings exist. 

The three models proposed by the Institute for Creative Integration that will be tested in the coming months. Photo by Lydia Chávez.

Nonetheless, Safaí noted that, in his district, “We’re ready to accept them.”

On July 27, the $427,500 expenditure to move forward with San Francisco’s quest to design the ultimate trash can from scratch was approved by all 11 supervisors. 

In explaining his “yes” vote, Haney wrote: “I can’t accept any further delays. This needs to get done. Voting down the expenditure altogether, which is money that had already long been set aside for this purpose, would have just set us back, possibly for years. The main concern I’ve had is not only with the cost, it’s how bungled and long of a process this has been.” 

And, now, that process continues. 

The supes moved on to other matters. The press, which enjoyed high-trafficking stories about the city’s inability to proffer a functioning trash can that costs less than a Yugo, moved on, too.

Is it now time to consider alternatives? 

At this point, the city has spent nearly three years and paid out $143,886 to the Oakland-based Institute for Creative Integration, according to its contract with Public Works. While not exactly chump change, it is still only a fraction of the $427,500 the city will now spend to manufacture the 15 test cans and the millions it will spend in mass-producing what Haney referred to this summer as a “designer” can.

But, as of last week, no contract has been signed between APROE and the city for the next stage. So perhaps it’s not too late to raise a few questions. For example: How did a trash can become so costly? 

The 2018 Request for Proposals (RFP) included a stipulation around costs, limiting bidders to “a combined unit cost of less than $1,000 each.”

Design criteria. San Francisco Public Works, RFP, Nov. 21, 2018, Design for SF’s new public trash receptacles.

The Institute for Creative Integration, one of two companies to compete for the project and the ultimate winner, reaffirmed that per-unit cost of $1,000 per can. That limit, however, never came up at any of the July meetings where supervisors considered the cans.  

By then, the predicted price of the mass-produced can had skyrocketed. Mission Local and The San Francisco Chronicle reported Public Works’ estimated cost of the 3,000-plus cans at $2,000 to $3,000 apiece, but Public Works acknowledged in hearings that it could be much higher. 

Haney asked the Public Works representatives at the Budget and Finance committee meeting on July 21 if the ultimate cost of the new design would be comparable to the off-the-shelf models the city planned to test in the $3,000 to $5,000 range.

The department would “come up with something that would be comparable to the cost of an off-the-shelf can, maybe slightly higher,” said Lisa Zhou, the Public Works project leader. “We don’t know. But if it were, it wouldn’t be significantly higher.“

Zhou never explained how the cost had jumped from $1,000 to potentially upwards of $5,000. No one ever asked about this, either. 

In a subsequent private meeting, Haney said, Public Works changed the estimate. “They told me that, actually, they believe that these can potentially be equal to or even cheaper than the off-the-shelf models,” Haney said when asked about the discrepancy. “I said, that’s not what you said in the committee. And they said, well, actually, that was wrong. We do believe it will be cheaper.” 

We don’t know what that belief is based on. 

Rubenstein did not recall such a high estimate and wrote in an email that the department aimed “for the lower number of $2k but need to give a range as there are many variables whose cost we cannot yet predict (for instance, design details, material cost, supply chain issues and manufacturing location which impacts shipping cost).” 

Shin Sano, the CEO of the Institute for Creative Integration, which has designed the three prototypes, thanked me for my insistent interest in their process but declined to answer a list of questions. Instead, he said, he would forward the questions to Public Works. 

Tom Dair, the creative director who submitted the proposal, never responded to an email asking for an interview. 

“Everyone was a little stumped” 

Steve Thompson, director of marketing and sales for BearSaver and Securr, which sells BearSaver trash bins, represented one of the seven companies that attended the 2018 pre-proposal conference meeting with San Francisco Public Works. 

Thompson’s company has sold some 1,000 trash bins to San Francisco parks, but designing a from-scratch concept model is not something that Securr does, he said. In his 22 years in the business, he added, he had not heard of a city designing a model from the ground up. 

A representative from another company, who declined to speak on the record, said “everyone was a little stumped” by Public Works’ decision to design its own model. He did not attend the meeting because, he said, his company would never do that; they make their own designs for sale. 

“There are companies who have done the research and groundwork … companies that have spent millions of dollars on how to build a smart trash can that makes sense. So the city is going back into the R&D portion of it and starting from scratch. Honestly, I don’t really know.”

Branch Creative, a San Francisco-based industrial design studio owned by Josh Morenstein and Nick Cronan, attended the pre-bid conference meeting in November, 2018. Earlier that year, the company had been one of two finalists for a different city project that involved designing new public toilets, and had lost out to another firm.

After that happened, Rubenstein, who had been the Public Works administrator on the toilet project, reached out in August, 2018, to see if Branch Creative would be interested in submitting a proposal to design a new trash can for the city, Morenstein said.  

They were. “We just wanted to do the project. We were like, ‘this sounds really cool,’” said Morenstein. “You know, I grew up in the city. My family had two long-term businesses here, we wanted to design something for the city.”  (Morenstein’s father owned a foundry in the city, and his family owned Just Desserts.)

So they drafted a proposal that went back and forth between Branch Creative and Public Works, according to Morenstein, who scrolled through old emails as we spoke. On Oct. 9, 2018, Morenstein said, they got an email asking if there was an expiration date on their $60,000 fee proposal. 

“We said ‘no,’” Morenstein said. Then, on Oct. 11, they got another email saying that Branch’s $60,000 design proposal was actually one of the strongest, but that  “upper management has decided to revamp the process and solicit proposals through a formal process,” Morenstein said. 

Morenstein and his partner were stunned and felt “dicked” around because they assumed they were close to a deal. Nevertheless, they attended the November meeting, which Morenstein described as confusing. 

“There were a lot of open issues,” Morenstein said, explaining that Lisa Zhou, the administrator, was unclear on what the city wanted and there were too many open-ended questions, such as whether the inside can was to be off-the-shelf or also a new design. (Ultimately, the three conceptual designs used both original designs for the inside can and off-the-shelf models.) 

Instead of submitting a proposal again, Branch Creative opted out.

And, like the price of the trash can, the price of the contract also jumped. 

Public Works’ RFP set a price tag of $85,000. The only other bid of the seven companies that attended the pre-bid meeting was submitted by Yamamar Architecture. Its price was $79,048. Yamamar could not be reached for comment. Its phone number no longer works and an email to Karen Mar, who submitted the proposal, bounced back. 

The Institute for Creative Integration’s winning bid was $143,886, more than double the amount Branch Creative had proposed in a pre-bid offer, and 69 percent higher than the initial price suggested by the RFP. 

San Francisco Public Works, RFP, Nov. 21, 2018, Design for SF’s New Public Trash Receptacles. Page 1.

Other models, other price points

Thompson from Securr still hopes that San Francisco tests one of his off-the-shelf models. It does not have a sensor system, but the city could contract with another company to do that.

Screenshots of the can Thompson would like to see the city test. It has no sensor. It sells for $1,600.

However, he warned, “simplicity is the key to a successful (trash) can.”  

He was unenthusiastic about the proposed prototypes using stainless steel. 

“They are just going to get beat up,” he said. “It’s a material that you might use for inside a hotel, but not on a city street.”

He understands, however, the lure of stainless steel. It’s attractive.

Jenny Frankel, the senior planning and development strategies manager for Seattle Public Utilities, just purchased 150 cans from Thompson. She warned at the start of our conversation that she could talk trash all day. 

The cans she purchased have no sensor, but she loves the way they can be lifted and dumped by the trucks and the wrap-around art feature. In her experience,  “There is not such a thing as a perfect public litter can,” Frankel said. “Different neighborhoods experience different issues. One can may work really well in one area and will do very poorly in another area.”

She’s hopeful about the 35-gallon trash cans Seattle has purchased.  She would have liked them to be less expensive, but steel costs went up and the art added to the final price. Each can costs $1,400.

Portland, another city Haney mentioned in the hearings, also purchased cans in 2020 from Thompson. They meet all of San Francisco’s requirements except the sensor. “We are considering adding them to some of our containers to prevent missed collections,” Quintin Bauer, public trash collection program manager for Seattle. But Portland is still assessing different solutions. 

No can is perfect, he cautioned. Cans require maintenance, cleaning and graffiti removal. Is it tamper proof? No can is, but, he wrote, “the locks are quick and simple to repair.” He likes the stainless steel, which, he wrote, “is very strong, but can be damaged if they are hit by cars at high speed.”

Portland pays $1,417 for the 35-gallon can and $1,851 for the 65-gallon can.  

Thompson would like San Francisco to try a similar can. He’s enthusiastic about the art wrap. Sensors could be added by another company. The one he has in mind for San Francisco costs around $1,600, including shipping, he says enthusiastically.   

It’s unclear if his can is on San Francisco’s list. Despite nearly three years of work, it’s unclear if San Francisco has a list. 

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