The "Slim Silhouette" trash can (Credit: SFDPW)

San Francisco's public trash cans have long outlived their lifespan and need to be replaced. However, the current design is inadequate for the city's burgeoning population and the increasingly larger number of tourists. The garbage receptacles also get rummaged through by scavengers, who leave behind a mess. To alleviate the issues, in 2018, San Francisco Public Works officials set out in search of a perfect trash can. The quest proved harder than they had thought.

The officials had a few criteria in mind. The ideal trash can had to be rummage-resistant, durable, and easy to empty. It would also have a built-in sensor to send alerts when full, cost between $2,000 to $3,000 apiece, and, most importantly, look good! After an extensive search failed to find a suitable off-the-shelf replacement, the committee commissioned local firms to design custom trash cans.

The "Soft Square" trash can (Credit: SFDPW)

The four-year quest ended on July 18, 2022, with the selection of three prototypes. They include the slender "Slim Silhouette," the cylindrical "Salt & Pepper," and the rectangular "Soft Square." Since none of them meet all the required criteria, the officials have turned to the city's residents for help.

The custom cans and three new off-the-shelf options have been installed across San Francisco for a 60-day trial. Residents can scan the QR codes on the cans and provide feedback on their user experience. A location map of each option is included at the end of the survey. The most popular trash can will be revealed after the trial ends in mid-September. Installation of the next-generation cans is expected to begin in 2023.

The "Salt and Pepper" trash can (Credit: SFDPW)

The time spent on the project and the cost of the three custom prototypes — which ranged between $11,000 to $20,900 apiece — have drawn criticism from the city's former Supervisor Matt Haney.

"The idea that San Francisco is so unique that we need a separate trash can from anyone deployed in any city around the world is preposterous," Haney told Mission Local. "It's something that reflects a broader and deeper brokenness of city government and the services it provides."

Three off-the-shelf trash cans are also being tested (Credit: SFDPW)

However, Beth Rubenstein, deputy director of policy and communications at San Francisco Public Works believes their research will benefit cities across the US.

"I don't know of any other city that has done this in such depth," Rubenstein says. "I'm guessing that the information that we learn can be used by other municipalities."

Resources: Fast,,