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The trouble with garbage in San Francisco

CC license Flickr Brad Greenlee


The most heavily used neighborhood park in San Francisco is Dolores Park. According to Sarah Ballard, with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, that comes with a high cost.  

“Between trash and vandalism we spend over a million dollars a year at that park cleaning up after people's bad behavior," says Ballard. "Frankly, the neighborhood has shifted and as there’s been more and more destination spots, I mean who wouldn't want to get a morning bun from Tartine and sit on that beautiful lawn?”

However, as thousands of new residents move into the city, urban parks and open spaces like Dolores Park are getting trashed. Why do people litter so much?

On any given weekend in Dolores Park, you’ll see thousands of people of all ages, races, and styles. They’re barbecuing food, sunbathing, hula hooping, and littering. The trash cans overflow, coconut husks roll around, and paper wrappers blow by. Lots of people in the park don’t like it.

“The biggest problem [is] the failure for the city to properly collect refuse," says Ross Fox.


But Ballard says in its $20 million renovation of Dolores Park, the city took a really hard look at trash issues. It found that on a sunny weekend, the park generates somwhere between five and 7,000 gallons of trash.


That’s almost two tons of trash every weekend, weighing about the same as a Ford Taurus. But Ballard doesn’t believe the garbage problem can be solved by simply adding more garbage cans. She says only about 15 percent of littering behavior is related to the availability and proximity of receptacles.


"The rest of it is really around cultural expectations and cultural norms of the place,” Ballard says.

Whether it’s bad habits or bad behavior, it has a big effect on the people who tend the 224 parks in San Francisco.    

"When you're in a neighborhood park and you've got a significant trash problem it can be demoralizing," Ballard says. "Not just for the users, but also for the staff who, instead of creating beauty in nature, are picking up trash."

It’s been a problem in San Francisco for decades. Harvey Milk knew it. When he ran for supervisor in 1977 he learned that the quality of life issue most city residents were concerned about was dog poop. He famously said, “Whoever can solve the dogsh#* problem can be elected mayor of San Francisco, even president of the United States.”       

That reminded us of this slogan: “DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS”


The phrase was used by George W. Bush in a 1986 anti-litter campaign. “Don’t Mess with Texas” is a registered trademark of the Texas Department of Transportation, and the brainchild of Austin advertising executive Tim McClure.

"The solution was tapping into every Texan’s DNA," McClure says. "A deep sense of personal pride in our great state.”

The slogan was promoted by George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughan and numerous Texas celebrities. It worked, says McClure.


"The rest as they say, is history," he says. "Within less than two years, post research indicated a 72% decrease in litter on our highways. Making Don't Mess with Texas the most successful anti-littering campaign in history."

Other cities have gotten into the act with their own urban campaigns, like 'Clean Toronto Together.' Over 160,000 people participated in April of this year according to their website.


In Hong Kong, they take it further. By using technology typically used for catching criminals, the government creates genetic composites of litterbugs from microscopic material left behind on the discarded trash. The crime is no longer anonymous. Posters are made of the litterers’ faces and put up all over the city and online.

The Hong Kong campaign is getting international attention, but what does San Francisco have? On the Department of Public Works website, Mayor Ed Lee is promoting: Don’t leave it on the sidewalk.


'Don’t leave it on the sidewalk' is actually an official city campaign. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to be paying much attention to it, if they even know about it.    

A couple of years of ago Travel + Leisure magazine came out with a list of the nation’s dirtiest cities. San Francisco barely stayed out of the top ten. It ranked 11th, which was cleaner than Los Angeles, but dirtier than Washington D.C.


Some people are trying to do better at Dolores Park. This month, at least fifteen businesses around the park joined to create a 'Love Dolores' campaign. With support from the Recreation and Parks department they made stickers and created a stamp to put on materials that can be recycled or composted in the right place.    


Their efforts are aimed at guiding customers to be more responsible so we don’t backslide into filth again. It may take a grand campaign, but San Francisco can do better. Can’t it?