Taking out the trash — a chore almost no one likes. But for many in San Diego, this bit of domestic drudgery is made worse by the condition of their trash bin. Thousands of bins are broken in the middle, are missing wheels, have cracked lids or have no lids at all.
A KPBS analysis of city records revealed an epidemic of broken bins — residents ordered nearly 17,500 replacement bins in 2018 alone. And over the last decade, the number of replaced bins annually has increased by 42 percent.
As anyone who has tried to get a replacement bin knows, it's difficult to get one for free. While San Diegans who live in single-family homes don't pay for trash pickup, they must pay up to $70 to get a new trash bin, plus $25 if they want it delivered.
The KPBS analysis showed residents in the San Carlos neighborhood were the most likely to order new bins—more than a third of households there ordered a bin since 2015. Other neighborhoods high on the list were the portion of Del Mar that falls inside the city of San Diego, Carmel Mountain and Sorrento Valley.
The neighborhoods least likely to order replacement bins were Barrio Logan and Gaslamp. That doesn't necessarily mean there are fewer broken bins there — just that residents might be less likely to shell out for a new one.
In 2018, residents spent more than $1 million on replacement bins. But Eden Carter, a district manager in San Diego's Environmental Collection Services Department, said not everyone has to pay.
"We have a policy and the policy is, if we break it, we'll take care of it," Carter said. "The drivers will let us know that they made a mistake, it was broken, we did it, we dragged it, it fell over, they'll relay that to their supervisor. And we actually will, in turn, give them another container."
City records tell a different story. In the past year, the city replaced only nine broken bins for free, according to data the city provided KPBS. Residents had a much better chance of getting a free replacement if their bin was accidentally tossed into the trash truck. That happened more than 1,000 times, the records show.
Rancho Peñasquitos resident Ramon Henares was among many who tried and failed to get a free replacement.
He arrived home to a broken bin in July. To find out what happened, he checked his security camera and saw the culprit: a city trash truck had skewered his bin and shook it back and forth, trying to break free.
But the evidence didn’t help him when he pleaded his case to the city.
"We told them specifically we do have video of your drivers doing it and they said the drivers, they'll from time to time cause some issues, but that's not our liability," Henares said.
The trash bin backstory
San Diegans' trash problems speak to the old adage that you get what you pay for. San Diego is one of just three cities in California that provides free trash service, which costs the city more than $30 million a year.
Free trash pickup was first established back in 1919 when San Diego voters passed a law called The People’s Ordinance. But apartment and condo dwellers have been left out of the free trash pickup deal.
Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University, said he doesn't think this disparity is likely to be changed, in part because homeowners tend to be more likely voters than people who live in apartments.
"The only way to change these rules is to have a ballot initiative where voters will vote on charging themselves for trash pickup, and it's very unlikely that we're going to see that," he said.
Until 2008, the city provided free bins to residents. But that benefit ended when the Great Recession hit and the city had to close a gaping budget deficit. The next year, the city switched to a cheaper type of bin that is less flexible and breaks easier than the previous brand.
Trash pickup across the county
Other San Diego County cities, where residents pay anywhere from $14 to $31 monthly for trash service, don’t have near the problem with busted bins.
Consider Chula Vista, which uses a sturdier brand of bin. There, if a bin does break a resident "can just call the trash company and have any part of the container replaced or the full container replaced at no cost," said Manuel Medrano, the city’s environmental services manager. But Chula Vista residents pay between $18 and $27 per month for their service.
Another reason for San Diego's broken bins are the trash trucks. The trucks are supposed to have a set speed for how quickly the bins are picked up and put down, said Carter, the San Diego environmental services district manager.
"Ten seconds going up, coming down," he said.
But KPBS observed many trash pickups happening faster than that. A faster speed means the gripping action on the bins might not be as gentle — potentially causing cracks. And as any physicist will tell you, increasing the acceleration when the bins are picked up and put down increases the force when the lid flips back and swings into the bin.
Chula Vista uses a special attachment on the front of its trucks, called a Curotto Can, that keeps the bins from being flung around or slammed down. But those special attachments typically cost more than $12,000 each.
With little chance that anything will change to bring better bins to San Diegans, some take matters into their own hands. Faced with a broken bin, some people get creative with duct tape, bolts, PVC pipe, even pieces of wood to fix their cans.
That was the case for Henares, who was told by the city of San Diego he has to buy a new bin despite his video evidence.
"We don't want to pay for a bin since we obviously didn't do the damage, the city did the damage," he said.
So he's leaving his bin broken. If he can't get a free one, he said, he'll just wait until his falls apart completely.