San Francisco must end ridiculous and expensive quest for ‘pretty’ trash cans

SF’s unique and pricey garbage bins a dream of disgraced former Public Works director

By The Examiner Editorial Board

There’s a foul stench wafting across San Francisco, and it’s not the pungent aroma of trash moldering in the dark green garbage bins dotting city streets. No, this malodorous cloud emanates from City Hall’s ridiculous scheme to waste taxpayer dollars on a quest to design new trash bins supposedly befitting The City’s unique character.

Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors approved a contract for Oakland’s Institute for Creative Integration to create new prototype garbage cans instead of buying cheaper versions that already exist. In an article headlined “Garbage odyssey: San Francisco’s bizarre, costly quest for the perfect trash can,” Lydia Chavez of Mission Local painstakingly detailed the long, strange pursuit of bespoke trash receptacles in a city that sends around 500,000 tons of refuse to the landfill each year.

“We’re moving forward in the next stage: prototype manufacturing and testing of the cans we opted to redesign from scratch,” wrote Chavez. “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.”

Once The City throws away nearly half a million dollars to create the super pricey prototypes, it could then spend millions more to replace San Francisco’s 3,300 basic green trash bins with snazzy designer versions. Of course, we don’t know exactly how much The City will spend because the prices keep changing mysteriously.

“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,” reported Chavez. “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.”

In the end, The City could pay anywhere from “$6.6 million to $16.5 million” on new waste baskets. Not everyone supports the project wholeheartedly. During a July hearing, District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney questioned why city bureaucrats were pursuing luxe garbage cans instead of off-the-shelf versions. Former Public Works Director Alaric Degrafinried said cheaper versions may not “necessarily be as pretty and as pleasing to the eye as the cans that are being designed for us right now.”

Haney scoffed.

“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. “It’s something that reflects a broader and deeper brokenness of city government and the services it provides.”

The overpriced garbage scheme was a passion project of Mohammed Nuru, the former Public Works director at the center of The City’s widening corruption scandal. Despite Nuru’s stunning downfall (“Mr. Clean” faces decades in prison if convicted of accepting bribes and fomenting corruption), city leaders seem determined to honor his legacy by carrying out his trash can dream.

Wise politicians would distance themselves from the stinky boondoggle, especially since The City’s current scandals have deep roots in the trash business. In March, Recology – the waste management company with a monopolistic stranglehold on The City’s garbage disposal – agreed to pay $95 million in refunds to the San Francisco ratepayers it purportedly got away with overcharging because of its cozy relationship with Nuru. “The agreement is expected to settle a lawsuit City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed Thursday against Recology, alleging the trash collector secured approval to improperly raise its rates by 14 percent — instead of 7 percent — by under-reporting its revenues in 2017,” wrote Michael Barba of The Examiner.

Nuru failed to correct the erroneous rate increases even after Recology flagged them as improper.

Meanwhile, the company cut large checks to nonprofit accounts connected to Nuru. The FBI alleges that Nuru accepted $1 million in bribes over the years. Two Recology executives, John Frances Porter and Paul Giusti, have been charged with crimes including bribery and money laundering. Earlier this month, three Recology subsidiaries admitted to conspiring to bribe Nuru and agreed to pay a $36 million criminal fine as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. That includes a $7 million penalty Recology previously agreed to pay San Francisco as part of its earlier settlement with the City Attorney’s Office. A total of 11 defendants have been charged in the probe, including multiple city employees. The tentacles of the Nuru drama have also reached Mayor London Breed, who once dated Nuru and who agreed to pay an ethics fine of $8,292 last month after admitting she improperly accepted $5,600 worth of free car repairs from him while in office.

Given all of this – and whatever remains unknown about the reach of this corruption scandal – it would probably be best for city leaders to stop following Nuru’s lead on trash-related matters.

City leaders decry the current garbage cans as unsightly and prone to frequent, costly breakdowns. Interestingly, the current “Renaissance” garbage cans were also specially produced under a contract also pushed by Nuru. Alternate Choice, a company affiliated with former permit expediter Walter Wong, landed the lucrative $5.2 million deal. In 2020, Wong pled guilty to conspiring to commit fraud and money-laundering. Last week, the Board of Supervisors approved a $1.7 million settlement for outstanding fines and penalties against Wong. Mission Local reported that the figure includes a $387,000 credit for spare parts for The City’s current crop of trash cans, which have now been deemed too ugly and outdated to remain in service.

“The parts had been obtained by the city, but had not yet been paid for — and the $387,000 credit offsets a larger $1.7 million fine levied against Wong,” wrote Joe Eskenazi of Mission Local.

San Francisco has wasted enough time and money on precious rubbish bins. City leaders should abandon this cockamamie scheme and buy cheaper models like those that have already been deployed in cities like Portland and Seattle. While overpriced artisan trash cans might be a fitting monument to Nuru’s reign at DPW, there’s no reason why city leaders should bestow this honor. Supervisors should instead save taxpayer money and shift their focus to more pressing local issues like homelessness, fentanyl addiction and crime.

Correction: This editorial has been updated to clarify the fact that Recology agreed to pay the $95 million refunds in March, rather than earlier this month, and to add that Recology agreed to $36 million in fines earlier his month as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with federal authorities.

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