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SF tackles Chinatown’s trash crisis with higher fines

Illegal dumping on Waverly Place in Chinatown in San Francisco on Jan. 5, 2023 | Courtesy Keep Chinatown Clean

Every morning in Chinatown begins with janitors clearing trash from its famously busy streets. But illegal dumping has become too much to handle, prompting San Francisco to strengthen enforcement and step up fines.

Amanda Fung, who leads the city-funded Keep Chinatown Clean ambassador team, welcomes the crackdown.

“The problem has been existing for a long time,” she said. “But now, it’s a lot worse.”

The garbage is mostly made up of cardboard, paper boxes from merchants and some household waste, Fung said. The declining resale value of cardboard has only made the problem deteriorate, she added.

Illegal dumping on Stark Alley in Chinatown | Courtesy Keep Chinatown Clean

Since China stopped buying plastic waste from the U.S. in recent years, the local recycling market has struggled to meet demand while more litter ends up on the streets.

Illegal dumping has long plagued Chinatown, dirtying small alleys and piling up by trash cans along the main streets. The mounting filth has led to growing calls for the city to ramp up recycling for the city’s most densely populated neighborhood.

In a 418-member WeChat group of mostly Chinatown merchants, photos and complaints about street trash are constant.

Ed Siu, who chairs the Chinatown Merchants United Association, has been very vocal about the trash crisis. He told the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily that “it’s embarrassing to the Chinese community” that some merchants throw trash on the streets.

San Francisco’s Department of Public Works, which oversees street cleaning and enforcement, said that it will beef up penalties for littering.

“Illegal dumping is an issue throughout San Francisco, but Chinatown is one of the hot spots,” department spokesperson Rachel Gordon said.

Illegal dumping on Waverly Place in Chinatown in San Francisco in December 2022 | Courtesy Keep Chinatown Clean

Until the city’s latest crackdown, litterbugs caught in Chinatown would get off with a warning. From now on, the violation brings up to a $1,000 fine.

Gordon hopes the steeper penalties will serve as a wake-up call and make people think twice before tossing their trash on Chinatown streets. 

“We don’t want to be punitive,” she said. 

The city may even send undercover officers to enforce the new plan, Gordon revealed.

Illegal dumping on Stockton Street in SF's Chinatown | Courtesy Keep Chinatown Clean

Officials said Chinatown merchants and families could help the city by heeding guidelines from recycling company Recology, and hoped the combined efforts will make Chinatown cleaner and more welcoming for the upcoming Lunar New Year celebration.