San Francisco's Trash Inspectors Get Up Earlier Than You Do

Behind the scenes of the city's aggressive campaign to monitor and educate people about exactly what should get thrown away.

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Mark Andrew Boyer

It was still dark out at 5:30 a.m. when I met up with James Slattery in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. I hopped in his car and we drove until we spotted a pair of headlamp beams on the sidewalk. Banaag Novicio and Nora Calderón – a pair of municipal cart auditors – were looking through curbside trash cans. They'd been working for at least 30 minutes already, walking from house to house, methodically popping open the lids of green (compost), blue (recycling) and black (landfill) bins to see which homes were correctly sorting their trash and which ones weren't.

Slattery is an assistant coordinator with the city's Department of Environment, and he heads San Francisco's first-of-its-kind trash monitoring and neighborhood outreach program. It's part of the city's broader effort to become 100-percent "waste-free" by 2020. Slattery joins the early-morning crew once or twice per week, but admits he still hasn't gotten used to getting up that early.

Banaag Novicio, James Slattery and Nora Calderón inspect the contents of a compost bin in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood. (Mark Boyer)

To help improve the city's landfill diversion rate, Slattery and his crew pound the pavement, both in the early morning and in the evening, keeping tabs on what's being thrown out and educating people about the three-bin system. The early-morning cart monitors are armed with clipboards, and they take notes about the trash sorting behavior of each household, which is later entered into a database and given to the outreach crew.

"Bad, bad, bad," says Calderon, shaking her head as she peered into the bins in front of a small home. "This goes in here," she says, pointing to pieces of plastic packaging that had been put in the black bin instead of the blue recycling bin. She makes a note of it and moves to the next house. There's no time to waste, because it's garbage day, and the crew has to remain a few blocks ahead of the trash collectors.

In the course of the morning, we encountered a handful of people – mostly Chinese Americans – who looked somewhat surprised to find a group rummaging through their trash. Each time, Slattery points to his vest and explains that he's with the Department of Environment. By about 7 a.m., the workers take off their reflective vests and headlamps and head back to the office to log the data they've gathered.

Environmental Outreach Associate Janelle Lee goes door-to-door, informing San Francisco residents about the city's three-bin system (Mark Boyer).

San Francisco residents are required by law to separate their compost and recycling from the rest of their trash, and soon they'll have an added incentive to do so. Recology, the city's trash hauler, will likely be raising its rates this summer. Under the proposed change, compost and recycling would no longer be free, but people who opt to downsize their black trash bin would pay a reduced fee.

When the mandatory composting ordinance was first proposed by then-mayor Gavin Newsom in 2008, critics raised concerns about enforcement. The original proposal called for fines of up to $1,000 for homes that failed to properly sort their trash. "Do we want our garbage collectors to be the meter maids of trash?" asked one San Francisco resident, quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle story at the time. A column published by the Christian Science Monitor took things a step further, warning that the "extreme fervor" of government leaders could lead to the trampling of basic rights.

Nearly five years later, most of the fears of Big Brother peeking into people's trash cans have faded. "Our approach has really been focused on outreach and education, and not on penalties," explains Department of the Environment Director Melanie Nutter. "I think people were concerned that there were going to be tickets or penalties or fines, and that has not been our approach." The department has yet to issue a single ticket.

On a different day, I met up with Slattery in the early evening to shadow the outreach crew. Using the data gathered by the cart monitors, which gives them a snapshot of each household's trash-sorting behavior, they try to make contact with someone in each home to explain the rules and answer questions.

The Bayview is a neighborhood of mostly small single-family homes on the southeastern edge of San Francisco. When someone does come to the door, Slattery and his crew introduce themselves and hand the resident a postcard-size flyer about the city's free large item removal service. "That’s how you ease into a conversation about compost and recycling," explains Keith Dews, an outreach coordinator who lives in the Bayview. "Give them something they don't know about, and ease into the rest."

The responses vary widely. A couple of the Bayview residents who came to the door were Recology employees, and they quickly told Slattery and the crew that they already know the rules. Others seem genuinely confused about what goes into the green bin, and the outreach crew leaves them with pamphlets.

We've covered only about three or four blocks when, about an hour after we started, the team is ready call it quits. On weekday evenings, there's a very narrow window of time between when people get home from work and when they start sitting down for dinner. Saturdays are better, though. "A lot of the time when we come out here, it's after work; people are tired, they want to get home, and they probably have countless other solicitors coming to their door," Slattery explains. "But if you catch someone on a Saturday at 11 a.m., it's usually a very rich interaction."

Keith Dews passes an informational brochure through a gated fence. (Mark Boyer)

The cart-monitoring program is part of the city's Environment Now job training program, which prepares workers for entry-level work in the green economy. The program employs 15 to 20 people, and language skills – particularly Spanish and Mandarin – are highly valued, because many San Francisco residents don't speak English.

Last fall, Mayor Ed Lee announced that San Francisco had achieved a landfill diversion rate of 80 percent – the highest in the country. Most of the easiest behavioral changes have already been implemented, but Nutter believes that outreach and education are key to increasing the diversion rate even more. "Policies and programs are great, but without community participation they don't mean anything and they don't help us get toward our sustainability goals."


San Francisco's Trash Auditors from Mark Andrew Boyer on Vimeo.

Top image: As the city sleeps, garbage inspector Nora Calderón keeps tabs on what San Francisco residents are throwing out. (Mark Boyer)

About the Author

  • Mark Andrew Boyer is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in YES! Magazine, GOOD, Inhabitat and the Global Oneness Project.