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A $1,000 fine for dumping ‘garbage or refuse’ in a trash can? The Standard explains

A bicyclist rides by a trash can marked with a sign that reads: "Warning: Do not dump garbage or refuse."
A person bikes past a trash can at the intersection of Polk and Sutter streets in San Francisco on Thursday. The bin is one of several marked with a warning sign not to dump garbage. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“Warning: Do not dump garbage or refuse,” read the sign affixed to the San Francisco public trash can at the corner of Polk and Sutter streets. It threatened a $1,000 fine, but didn’t explain where, exactly, passersby were supposed to toss their snack wrappers and soda cans if not in the bin designed precisely for that use.

The bizarre notice sparked confused laughs, and a bit of a social media tizzy, after one of The Standard’s editors spotted the catch-22 on her walk to work and snapped a photo.

Given The Standard’s deep commitment to solving San Francisco’s mysteries—both big and small—an inquiry was launched to get to the bottom of how this contradiction came to be. As it turns out, poor design is just the beginning: The sign speaks to the rise of a troubling quality-of-life issue in the city.

The blue San Francisco Department of Public Works logo is printed on the sign, so the natural place to turn for an explanation was the department’s spokesperson, Rachel Gordon. 

She explained that it all started when a member of the department’s Outreach and Enforcement Team took the initiative to post a handful of signs on garbage cans that have had serious problems with illegal dumping. Instead of just throwing out a tissue or banana peel the bins were designed to receive, people were putting entire bags of household or business trash into, or next to, the public cans, according to Gordon.

“While we saw a decrease in illegal dumping after the signs went up, the message was indeed confusing, and the signs are coming down, if they haven’t been removed already,” Gordon said.

That sign template is typically used at illegal dumping hot spots, not on trash cans, she added.

A man places a pizza box and bag of trash next a public trash can.
A person leaves a bag of trash next to a public bin at the intersection of Polk and Sutter streets on Thursday. The trash can is one of several with warning signs from the Department of Public Works threatening $1,000 fines for people who dump garbage. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Many San Franciscans turn to 311 when their neighborhood garbage can is overflowing to request that the city clear the refuse. 

From 2018 to 2021, residents submitted a monthly average of about 1,400 requests to clean up overflowing city garbage cans, according to 311 data. That figure climbed to about 1,770 in 2022, then skyrocketed up to an average of 10,550 monthly complaints in the first nine months of 2023, the latest 311 data available.

While the six-fold increase in complaints from 2022 to 2023 is an imperfect measure that relies as much on the popularity of 311 as it does on street conditions, photos that residents attached to their online complaints make it clear that serious amounts of garbage were stacked up next to some city trash cans in 2023. 

A small sampling of the thousands of 311 images shows city bins surrounded by waste that they clearly weren’t intended to receive. That includes a microwave, a stroller, yard trimmings and many, many, many big bags of garbage.

“One of our ongoing challenges has been the misuse of public trash cans,” Gordon said.

When a can becomes a magnet for illegal dumping, public works employees sometimes remove the can because it ends up driving more, not less, public filth, according to Gordon.

That’s what happened at the corner of Post and Hyde streets after the owner of the Propagation bar requested the removal of a new garbage can in front of her business, saying that it was in constant poor condition.

“This can is a safety concern as well as a human health one,” Propagation owner Heather Hoffman wrote in an email to Supervisor Aaron Peskin, according to public records uncovered by local activist Hazel Williams.

Propagation did not reply to requests for comment.

Up in Nob Hill, Public Works is going to post new signs clarifying that people shouldn’t dump household or commercial garbage in the city bins, according to Gordon.

But as of Thursday, the original notice that first caught The Standard’s eye was still up. And it quickly became apparent that a sign, even one threatening a $1,000 fine, will only go so far to lighten the load on San Francisco’s burdened bins. 

As a photographer snapped photos, a person walked up to the garbage can and, without hesitation, plopped down a pizza box and an overflowing bag of trash.