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Why Are There So Many Broken Trash Bins In San Diego?

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Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 As everyone knows, there is no such thing as a free lunch or in San Diego have free trash bin. While people who live in single family homes don't pay for trash pickup, they do pay in other ways. Residents must pay $95 to get a replacement trash bin if theirs is broken. And as KPBS investigative reporter Claire Treg is her found broken bins happen a lot.

Speaker 2: 00:25 It's shocking. It's not something that we expect. So it's been kind of a frustrating situation.

Speaker 3: 00:31 I don't love it. No, I mean I wish I didn't have to. So yes, I do mind frustration. Anger was all part of the emotional package. You're going [inaudible]

Speaker 4: 00:41 that's the last thing that you would expect to see when you come home as the lid for your trash cans way up in the air. Why are these people mad? Because of their trash.

Speaker 3: 00:53 All of them had been damaged by city of San Diego trucks and all were told they'd have to pay for replacement bins at $70 each plus $25 for delivery and they're not alone. The number of replacement bins ordered by residents has increased by 42% over the last 10 years, up to more than 17,000 bins last year. If you lined up all those bins end to end, they would stretch almost 10 miles. That's like from ocean beach to SDSU and in 2018 residents spent more than $1 million on replacement bins, but the city says not everyone has to pay.

Speaker 5: 01:35 We have a policy and the policy is if we break it, we will take care of. We're responsible for that.

Speaker 3: 01:41 Eden Carter is a district manager with the city's environmental collection services department.

Speaker 5: 01:46 The drivers will actually let us know, you know, that we keep, they made a mistake, you know, it was broken. We did it, we dragged it, it fell over. Um, we're responsible for it. They relay that to their supervisor and then we actually in turn, will give them another container.

Speaker 3: 02:02 This is not always the case.

Speaker 2: 02:04 When we said that we have video of the driver actually smashing it on the ground, they said, well, you know, that's just part and parcel with it.

Speaker 3: 02:11 When Rancho pennis Quitos resident, Ramon Harris arrived home to a broken bin a few months ago. He checked his security camera and saw the culprit. A city trash truck had skewered his can and shook it back and forth trying to break free. But when he took that evidence to the city, it didn't matter.

Speaker 2: 02:30 We told them specifically, we do have video of your drivers doing it. And they said, yeah, the, yeah, the, the drivers, you know, they'll, they'll from time to time, um, caused some issues, but that's not our, our liability.

Speaker 3: 02:43 Hey, PBS asked the city how many damaged bins in the last year were replaced for free. And the answer came back just nine. But what is causing the broken bins to begin with? In 2009, the city switched to a new type of bin that is less flexible and more easy to break eating. Carter with the city says the reason they use the new bins is simple. There

Speaker 4: 03:06 cheaper is a bidding process. Another issue is the trash trucks. Carter says they have a set speed for picking up trash. 10 seconds going up 10 seconds. But KPBS observed most trash pickups happening faster than that, which means the gripping action on the cans might not be as gentle, potentially causing cracks and as any physicist will tell you, increasing the speed of taking up and putting down the can also increases the force when the lid flips back and swings into the can. But not everyone has the money or the willingness to pay for a new bin, including Rancho Pennys, ketose resident, Ramon Harris. We have just left it like this. We don't want to pay for a band because we obviously didn't do the diamond.

Speaker 3: 03:56 He says if he can't get a free one, he'll just wait until his falls apart. Completely. Joining me is KPBS investigative reporter Claire Trek a sir Claire. Welcome. Thank you. What got you interested in the condition of San Diego's trash bins? Well, it was actually some personal experience. I paid for a new trash bin because mine was broken. And a few months later my lid was broken again. And then I was taking a cross country flight with my two year old son who loves trash trucks and we decided the best way to entertain him was to download this YouTube video of just different trash trucks picking up trash in all these different cities. And I was watching it and I was thinking, wow, these other trucks actually do have better ways of picking up trash where the bins don't get slammed around as much. So that's what made me decide to look into.

Speaker 3: 04:46 Okay. And what is the reason that a city resident can't just pick up a garbage can from let's say home Depot if their trash bin is damaged? Well, I mean they can, for certain ones, the city has, you know, they have to meet the specifications so that the truck can actually lift up the, the bin and dump it. Um, the city city website says which ones you can buy and you can buy ones that are better quality, less likely to break, but all of them cost more than it would cost you to order through the city. Now does the city have any guidelines about how damaged is to damage for a trash bin to be usable anymore? I mean, if you talk to people it seems like no, it can really vary because what the city, the drivers will do is they'll leave this pink sticker on your bin and say this is now too damaged.

Speaker 3: 05:35 We, we aren't going to pick this up anymore. And some people say, Oh, I got a sticker with just a very small crack with what the city says is that it's really anything that's going to become dangerous. Like if there's loose pieces and the truck picks up the bit and pieces come flying off, it can be dangerous. Um, but the problem is that when people get this sticker, then their trash is no longer being picked up. If they need to order a new bin, it can take three to four weeks to be delivered. In the meantime, all their trashes building up so people get very upset about it.

Speaker 1: 06:05 So does the city monitor how the sanitation trucks and drivers are actually treating the trash bans or are they just relying on what the drivers tell them?

Speaker 3: 06:14 I don't believe that they have any kind of, you know, dash cam or body worn camera, but, but maybe they should. Um, I think one thing that we're seeing, which I brought up in this story is more people with security cameras are actually capturing what happened. Um, but then as we heard in my story, it doesn't always matter. Even if you have on video that the truck caused the damage, you may not be able to get a free bin.

Speaker 1: 06:37 Is the city actually making money on the replacement fees for all these damaged trash

Speaker 3: 06:42 friends? Well, they say no, of course. Um, but a grand jury report that came out a few years ago found that it actually only costs the city about $50 per new bin, but the city says they used the extra $20 plus the delivery fee to pay for staff costs in providing the new Dubin. So they say, you know, they're breaking even. Basically,

Speaker 1: 07:03 you got an overwhelming response from KPBS listeners. When you asked about their experiences with broken trash bans, were there more stories than you could include in this feature? Oh yes. What did they say?

Speaker 3: 07:16 I mean, it was a very popular post that we put out and I also wanted to give a shout out. If you want to submit your story now, you still can you go to kpbs.org/curious, um, and you can, you can fill out responses there. Um, one woman said she came home and she found her lid was hanging from a utility pole high up in the air. And what she thinks happens is that the, when the truck was flipping the bin back, the lid got stuck on the utility pole and just ripped off. But there was no note, you know, no explanation. She just had to look up and see, see her lid there. And then another story was that I think is really funny is because the city provides the blue recycle bins for free. One person ordered a new blue bin and then painted it.

Speaker 1: 08:05 You have to be innovative or pretty innovative. What about city council members? Is the trash bin issue something that they hear a lot about from their constituents?

Speaker 3: 08:13 Yeah, it is actually in, in this grand jury report that came out in 2017 they found that some council offices were using their discretionary funds to buy bins for people who basically contacted the office and said, I need a new bid. And that's not how that money is supposed to be spent. So after the report came out, they all had to stop doing that.

Speaker 1: 08:32 Okay. So this is a two part series. Claire, where are you going with this Trashman story tomorrow?

Speaker 3: 08:39 Well, tomorrow we're looking at how every other city in the County does trash. Um, they all use private contractors like EDCO or waste management. And they, for the most part, have better bins and some better trucks, um, that minimize the damage to the bins. But residents there all pay for trash pickup from like $14 a month to up to $31 a month in different cities. Um, and then we'll also look at the history of San Diego and why we are only one of three cities in California was free trash pickup for single family homes. And we'll also hear from someone who, uh, recorded, uh, trash truck damaging his bin and was able through, I think he put the video on social media and got a lot of attention. And so he ended up finally getting the city to pay for a new bin, which as we heard in my story, is very rare. There's only been nine instances of that in, in the past year. Okay. I've been speaking with KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger, sir Claire. Thank you. Thank you.

Speaker 6: 09:41 [inaudible].

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 replaced annually has increased by 42%.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.