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San Francisco Gets Smarter About Trash Management

Optical sensors are the latest weapon against overflowing trash bins in the California city. Public works officials say 1,000 bins across the city will be fitted with the sensors that alert crews when they are full.

(TNS) — The streets of San Francisco are in for some smart spring cleaning.

Starting this spring, 1,000 trash bins in San Francisco will be fitted with smart sensors that can detect how full they are. Optical sensors that will be mounted in the bins are part of a system that can track and learn from patterns of activity in the bins. The city can then use that information to make decisions on where to place the bins, when trash collectors should empty them and where recycling options might be needed.

The public works department expects the system to reduce the time it takes for trash pickup. Jennifer Blot, a spokeswoman for the department, said it takes about 15 to 20 minutes to respond to calls from the public about overflowing trash bins. The new system will allow the city to pre-empt those calls because it sends notifications when the bins are 80 percent full.

Many big cities face challenges in keeping their streets clean, and New York, Boston, Baltimore and others use smart trash systems. But the cleanliness of San Francisco — which has a population of nearly 900,000 and sees more than 160,000 commuters each weekday, according to Census Bureau numbers — has attracted national attention, including from President Donald Trump. In a tweet last month disparaging Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during the partial government shutdown, he said, “And by the way, clean up the streets in San Francisco, they are disgusting!”

Mayor London Breed responded to the president on Twitter, saying that the city is cleaning up its streets. Last year, San Francisco launched a poop patrol to clean up human and animal waste on sidewalks. Other initiatives include a public toilet program at 25 locations in 12 neighborhoods in the city, and steam cleaning streets and alleys each night.

Last year, a three-month test of the sensor system in 48 trash bins in San Francisco reduced the number of overflowing bins by 80 percent, said Nordsense, the maker of the technology. During that period, the city said that of 4,300 calls to 311 — which are routed to trash collector Recology — 4,161 were notifications from the automated system, while only 139 of the calls were from the public. Nordsense, whose product development is in Denmark but has an office in Sunnyvale, also touted a drop in illegal dumping and street cleaning during the pilot.

The sensors soon will be placed in bins in many major San Francisco corridors, such as downtown, Chinatown and North Beach.

In Chinatown, the cans tend to get full “many times a day, while some cans get full on the fifth or sixth day,” said Nordsense founder and Chief Technology Officer Manuel Maestrini. The city will be able to make adjustments based on the information the sensors will gather from the 1,000 bins, which Blot said amounts to about a third of the city’s total trash bins.

San Francisco’s contract with Nordsense, which covers three years, cost $294,000. Nearly half of that is for one-time installation and parts. The annual cost of maintaining and monitoring the receptacles, which is included in that total, is about $50,000. Blot said it’s tough to estimate the cost savings yet.

Nordsense’s system is also being used in Copenhagen and tested at more than 20 other cities around the world.

©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.