San Francisco’s trash gets help from tech

The plaza in front of the Ferry Building was packed last Sunday. Unfortunately, so were the public trash cans lining the Embarcadero. Coffee cups overflowed into the street. Bags and boxes of garbage, potentially illegally dumped, slumped against the bins’ sides.

In a City working to clean up its streets and reduce the amount of waste it sends to landfills these uncontained heaps are an unwelcome occurrence. In addition to making our sidewalks dirty and unattractive, improperly disposed garbage increases pests and the need for City resources.

But tech companies – also sometimes considered an unwelcome occurrence in San Francisco – may offer a solution.

Through the Startup in Residence (STiR) program established by Mayor Edwin Lee in 2014, San Francisco Public Works asked for help responding to the 10,000 service requests for overflowing trash cans it receives annually. In response, the Department acquired special sensors that could monitor overflow and vandalism. The new technology has enabled Public Works and Recology, San Francisco’s recycling provider, to keep San Francisco’s streets cleaner.

Now, Mayor London Breed is expanding these sensors to public bins across the City. It’s a fantastic and much needed program. But to make City streets really sparkle, San Francisco should find additional ways to partner with tech, including ways to make sorting easier and more accurate.

“We want to give people appropriate places to place their litter,” Rachel Gordon at Public Works told me. “If there’s a can that’s overflowing, it makes it more difficult for people to do the right thing.”

Working with Nordsense, Public Works installed the tech company’s sensors into 48 out of San Francisco’s 3,800 public trashcans. The sensors monitor waste levels and whether the bin is upright and secure. The information is communicated to the City every 15 minutes to speed response time and optimize can placement and pickup schedules.

So far, the program is successful. Public Works has seen an 80 percent decrease in overflowing cans, a 64 percent decrease in illegal dumping and a 66 percent decrease in street cleaning service requests. The Department is currently expanding the program to 1,000 additional cans with support from Mayor Breed.

“San Francisco is a global leader when it comes to environmental sustainability – since 2003 we have reduced the amount of waste we send to landfills by half,” Mayor Breed told me. “While we work to reach our City’s zero waste goal, we are expanding the number of smart trash cans across the City to ensure that our trash is properly disposed of and does not end up on our streets.”

The expansion of smart trash cans, are a wonderful addition to other clean up efforts, like San Francisco’s “poop patrol.”

But it’s possible for San Francisco to see more success. The growth of “smart” products and appliances is enabling better data collection and making life easier for people around the world. While Public Works is primarily using Nordsense sensors to reduce overflow and vandalism the sensors can collect other useful information.

“We can measure temperature,” Søren Christensen, the founder of Nordsense, told me at a demonstration in April. “Higher temperature can give us an indication that there is waste that is fermenting and rotting and biological or compostable waste is present.”

This information can help further optimize placement of green bins and identify opportunities for business outreach. If sensors repeatedly measure high levels of compostable waste in a street can outside a fast-food restaurant, for example, The City could work with the restaurant to re-direct customers to the proper bin.

Other startups are addressing sorting more directly. Pittsburg-based company CleanRobotics created the TrashBot, which uses artificial intelligent to sort recyclables at the point of disposal. The company has worked with private and public customers in Australia, Charlotte and Seattle. They are interested in future partnerships with San Francisco.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at

Robyn Purchia
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Robyn Purchia

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