San Francisco Spent Over $20,000 on a Trash Can

“We need to have a trash can that works for the city of San Francisco,” said city project manager Lisa Zhuo.


This summer, a collection of custom and off-the-shelf trash cans hit the streets of San Francisco as the city prepares to replace its stock of over 3,000 public bins. The San Francisco Department of Public Works says it's time, since the current bins "have become easy targets of scavengers"—but the prototypes have come under fire for their exorbitant costs.

The four-year search has yielded three custom-made trash cans designed by a local industrial firm. They're now stationed around San Francisco, and residents may scan a QR code on the cans to offer the city feedback via an eight-item questionnaire. The "Salt & Pepper" came in at around $11,000, while the "Slim Silhouette" prototype cost about $18,000. The "Soft Square" cost $20,900. Three off-the-shelf models are also in the mix, ranging in price from $630 to $2,800.

"We need to have a trash can that works for the city of San Francisco," said city project manager Lisa Zhuo in a video announcing the prototypes. "We're trying to come up with one design. If this trash can is able to perform the way it's designed, it's going to save us in the long term."

Matt Haney, a former San Francisco supervisor, questioned the plan during a Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee meeting last year. "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…and then making a decision based on this?" he asked. "This is a very expensive, much longer, uncertain process."

As reported by Mission Local, then–interim Public Works Director Alaric Degrafinried objected that San Francisco is "obviously very unique," and city officials "weren't happy with the look" of off-the-shelf cans. Instead, they plowed ahead with a $427,500 plan to produce bespoke prototype bins. City officials have waved away the steep costs of the custom bins by saying that, if they're chosen, they'll end up costing between $2,000 to $3,000 per unit once they're mass-produced.

That cost might hurt a bit less if the bins were at least accomplishing what officials hoped they would—namely, encouraging public cleanliness. But the Associated Press reports that several cans are already tagged with graffiti and surrounded by large trash items.

The A.P. notes that street trash has been an issue in San Francisco for decades. That problem likely worsened in 2007 when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom "eliminated about 1,500 of the city's 4,500 trash cans because he said they were not helping keep streets clean and were becoming magnets for more trash," says the A.P.

San Francisco's yearslong quest for the perfect trash can won't result in new bins replacing the old ones until at least the end of 2023. The winning design will depend partially on feedback from residents, sanitation crews, and neighborhood merchants. Whichever bin city officials end up choosing, more taxpayer dollars are bound to go to waste.