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What's behind LA's trash can shortage

I was astonished at the amount of trash there was everywhere. Cleaning up must have been a hassle. Every trashcan was piled high and over flowing.
Joe Philipson/flickr Creative Commons
Trash overflows at a park during a local festival

You're standing on a Los Angeles street, turning in a circle, looking for a public trash can to toss your empty coffee cup. Keep hunting, because the city maintains only about 1,000 cans on its city streets.

Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to add 5,000 more bins to the city inventory over the next four years, he said in his State of the City speech Tuesday. 

It's part of his administration's new Clean Streets Initiative. In one of the few laugh lines in his speech, he nicknamed it CSI Los Angeles, like the TV cop show. One might need a detective to figure out why the supply of city-owned trash cans is so low, especially compared to New York's 25,000 cans, or Washington D.C.'s 4,800.

Los Angeles' 6,500 miles of streets once had some 6,000 city-maintained trash cans, said Mark Thomas, a private industry executive who researched the city's cleanliness during his ongoing fellowship in the City Administrative Office.

Over time, as the city cut back on purchases and services during the recession, the number of trash cans fell. When the Bureau of Sanitation inventoried street cans after taking over collection duties from the Bureau of Street Services, the number went down to 700, Thomas said. 

Trash can haves and have-nots

It's not like there are only a thousand trash cans on L.A. streets, that's just the number the city maintains. Some business districts, neighborhood associations and private businesses add additional cans and pay for their maintenance, which can create the impression that there are trash can haves and have-nots. 

In 2013, the civil rights group L.A. Community Action Network mapped downtown to document that the well off portions have plenty of cans, while Skid Row, where many homeless people live, have few:

Karl Scott, a community organizer with the group said the 20 or so blocks that make up Skid Row have just 17 trash cans placed by the city. He said neighboring areas served by business improvement districts funded by local merchants have many cans.

Los Angeles Board of Public Works President Kevin James acknowledged the disparity. "We have to get them more trash cans east of Main," he said.

He said his department will map the city's complete inventory of public and quasi-public cans, and use the data to fill in the gaps with the roll-out of 5,000 new trash cans. He said the data would also be used over time to determine where the "hot spots" are − areas that need bins, cleaning and/or maintenance.

$1 million in cans, more in labor, equipment

The cans can cost up to $200 each, so figure about a $1 million for trash cans, but that's not the real expense, James said. The labor and equipment needed to pick up trash is where the larger spending comes in. 

Garcetti's Clean Streets Initiative still needs a price tag and action plan, so it could be months or longer before the bins roll out to neighborhoods that need them.