Talking trash: San Jose struggles to curb illegal dumping
Trash and debris accumulates at the 7th Street onramp to Highway 280 in San Jose. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

San Jose has fought hard to curb illegal dumping, blight, litter and graffiti in recent years, aided by a city app that launched in 2017 that lets residents report such activities. But two years later, illegal dumping continues to plague the city and enforcement remains difficult.

A recent report on the city’s Beautify SJ program highlighted the city’s challenges in keeping up with the high demand for cleanup services triggered by the new app, as the program dealt with a shortage of staffing and resources. The city averaged 543 monthly requests to clean up illegal dumping sites before the launch of the app — called My San Jose — but it tripled to 1,583 requests afterward.

In 2019, Beautify SJ added a new compactor truck; increased staffing for its cleanup crew, dubbed the Rapid Response team; and executed more proactive sweeps. In 2019, the city conducted 2,100 sweeps and has cleaned up more than 8 tons of trash, officials said.

“Our overarching goal is to see a direct connection between a clean, beautiful looking city and an increase in community pride,” Deputy City Manager Angel Rios told San José Spotlight. “Having said that, getting to that goal is tough because we’ve seen increases in graffiti and illegal dumping.”

The city in February renewed a yearlong contract with California Waste Solutions, San Jose’s largest recycling hauler, which serves nearly 166,000 homes. In 2017, the company began a free bulky-item pickup service that lets residents call in to have junk such as mattresses, sofas and ovens hauled. This year, the company reported processing 2,500 junk pickup requests on a monthly basis with each order including up to 30 items.

That means 75,000 pieces of trash are kept off city streets per month, Chief Operating Officer Johnny Duong said.

“We believe this program is a great way to deter illegal dumping throughout the city,” Duong said. “A mailer was sent out earlier this year to further educate residents about the program as well as encourage them to easily schedule their requests online.”

But the city still faces significant challenges with enforcing penalties and collecting fees for illegal dumping, which include a $2,500 fine for a first-time violation and up to $10,000 for a third violation.

The challenge with issuing citations for illegal dumping is that they’re dependent on public reporting and must be supported by evidence, such as eye witness reports, video and photographs. In 2016-2017, only 8 administrative citations and 66 warning notices were issued. The following fiscal year, 23 administrative citations and 69 warning notices were issued.

Meanwhile, city officials have identified more than 160 illegal dumping hot spots locations throughout the city — sites with 13 or more clustered illegal dumping incidents.

Officials are hoping to install visual deterrents at the hotspots, such as banners and cameras. But according to a recent city report, the city has only installed three cameras — which cost $30,000 each — and hasn’t identified funding to buy more.

“We’re looking at other options other than just the punitive and explore other things that work,” Rios said. “The one thing that blows me away … are our volunteers. We would average back in 2016 about 5,000 volunteers a year. Right now, we’ve already exceeded 20,000 volunteers.”

Rios said the city will also organize additional public education campaigns and award more neighborhood grants, which residents can use to fund cleanup events and maintain streets. In 2018-19, the city issued 91 grants, up from 69 in 2017-18, a 32 percent increase.

San Jose, meanwhile, is also intensifying cleanup efforts through anti-litter and graffiti abatement programs. More than 185 tons of debris were collected this year, 2.4 million square feet of graffiti drawings were painted over and 20,674 illegal dumping sites were cleaned.

Illegal dumping, litter and blight plague other large Bay Area cities, too.

In neighboring Oakland, Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley has spearheaded a regional effort to curb illegal dumping, especially in run-down neighborhoods such as East Oakland.

Like San Jose, Oakland faces a number of challenges — unscrupulous haulers who offer to take people’s trash to the dump but instead pocket the money and dump the trash on the roadside and a lack of access to free pickup services. Multifamily renters, for example, depend on their landlords to call in the service for them.

“We’re seeing tons and tons of garbage dumped on our streets every day,” said Erin Armstrong, Miley’s assistant. “People just don’t necessarily know how to get rid of it or if you live in a multifamily home, which is something like 56 percent of people in Oakland, that means over half don’t have access to bulky pickup.”

The supervisor has also advocated for a regional approach, focusing on policies rooted in the “three E’s” — education, eradication and enforcement, Armstrong said.

“This is an opportunity to learn from law enforcement and all these different types of partners and best practices for enforcing our laws when it comes to illegal dumping,” Armstrong said. “It’s about trying to bridge that gap between where the waste is generated and getting it into the proper waste stream.”

A statewide conference will be held in San Jose at City Hall on April 22, coinciding with Earth Day, where leaders will discuss implementing regional solutions for illegal dumping.

“We’re really excited,” Armstrong added. “We’re presenting on some of these strategies, through the lens of those three E’s, and how people throughout the state can use them to replicate what we’re doing and scale it up.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

 

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