San Francisco should accept money under the mattress to combat illegal dumping

Earlier this month, the Marina Green was a dump. But residents of San Francisco’s swanky District 2 neighborhood weren’t complaining. They were too busy making piles bigger with broken chairs, ripped screens and feathered dreamcatchers. Crews from San Francisco Public Works were also happy to see residents participating in Gigantic 3, a free monthly event held around The City to help San Franciscans discard their old treasures.

“People leave stuff on the street,” Julie Wilson, a participating Marina resident, told me. “It makes The City look horrible.”

That was the scene blocks away from the Marina Green, on the corner of Fillmore Street and Retiro Way. A torn leather couch and box of clothes sat baking in the morning sun. Further up Fillmore, a broken broom lay littered on the sidewalk.

Like Sisyphus from Greek mythology, city workers laboriously and sometimes futilely clean up San Francisco, only to see piles of illegally dumped trash appear again. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Like Sisyphus from Greek mythology, city workers laboriously and sometimes futilely clean up San Francisco, only to see piles of illegally dumped trash appear again. But The City doesn’t have to shoulder the burden alone. Others want to help abandoned items, like mattresses, find their way to recycling facilities. All San Francisco must do is take its money and collaborate.

In 2015, mattress manufacturers created a statewide recycling program. An $11 fee collected every time one gets sold goes into a fund administered by the Mattress Recycling Council (MRC). The nonprofit uses these funds to help local agencies pick up abandoned mattresses and provide incentives to residents who drop them off at participating recycling facilities.

“Our program pays for everything related to mattress collection events including labor, transportation, recycling and event promotion,” Mike O’Donnell, MRC’s managing director, told me. “Additionally, MRC has funding available to municipalities across the state if they provide data on where and when mattresses are illegally dumped.”

But The City hasn’t accepted these funds or provided data. Every weekday, Public Works and Recology, San Francisco’s waste provider, haul 5,000 pounds of mattresses to recycling. This includes those that have been dumped, dropped off at events like Gigantic 3, and properly disposed of by city residents through the easy and free online Bulky Item Recycling service.

The task isn’t cheap. Public Works estimates it costs $25 to $30 to process mattresses San Franciscans drop off and dispose of properly. Responding to abandoned mattresses is significantly more expensive — $175 per trip. It’s strange The City hasn’t accepted MRC’s money to reduce these costs.

“The program is still very new,” Robert Reed with Recology explained. “We need to get more information and view it in combination with the other things we’re doing.”

Maybe I’m missing something, but opening your hand and taking a check shouldn’t require so much thought.

But don’t condemn The City’s slow progress too harshly. Although MRC is currently operating with a budget surplus, there isn’t a ton of money on the table, and San Franciscans’ trash rates aren’t affected.

Participating municipalities, like Sacramento and Los Angeles, only receive up to $10 per abandoned mattress they pick up. This is a mere fraction of the estimated cost.

The money is also too small to incentivize San Franciscans to do the right thing. MRC only pays residents $3 for each mattress they drop off at participating facilities. Even if Recology was a participating facility, it’s hard to imagine many willing to lug their king-size bedding across town for the price of a cup of coffee.

“If you really want to stop dumping, put more money up,” Larry Stringer of Public Works told me. “If I can call Recology, turn in my mattress and get credit through this program, you would probably reduce mattresses on the sidewalk by 10 to 15 percent.”

It’s a good idea and one San Francisco can make a reality. After multiple municipalities complained about the minimal money, CalRecycle promised to call a meeting of the state’s Illegal Dumping Technical Advisory Committee on Oct. 11 to address the problem. If The City is serious about cleaning up our sidewalks, it should work with other local agencies, the state and MRC to increase funding.

Piles of trash on sidewalks, in alleyways and under overpasses make our city look horrible. There’s no reason to leave a check on the table and no reason why San Francisco must shoulder the burden of cleaning it up alone.

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

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