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Piles of trash sit on a sidewalk in Oakland Chinatown

Oakland sharply increases trash pickup but can’t keep up with illegal dumping, especially in Chinatown

on August 2, 2023

Oakland Chinatown is one of the communities deeply bothered by illegal dumping, even though the city has seen a nearly six-fold increase in the quantity of trash cleared from its streets in the past seven years. 

Liao Shen, an employee at D&K Market in Chinatown, said the store pays about $800 a month for trash services and then has to deal with trash overflow from illegal dumpers. 

“It is very frequent,” said Shen. “It happens all the time.”

Businesses in Chinatown are required to put out trash bins by the curbside on Monday and Thursday nights for Waste Management, the sole garbage hauler in Oakland, to pick up early the next morning. But illegally dumped trash quickly reappears. 

“It’s always the middle of the night and early in the morning. People are not around and they do that,” said Carl Chan, president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

Trash bins and services are not always affordable. One in 6 businesses in Oakland either does not have trash services or the proper level of trash services, said G. Harold Duffey, director of the Public Works Department. 

The result is that about 18 million pounds of trash and debris are dumped on the streets of Oakland annually, which is the equivalent of roughly 42 pounds of trash for each Oakland resident.

Trash bags are tossed by a trashcan on an Oakland Chinatown sidewalk.
Trash bags are tossed by a trash can on an Oakland Chinatown sidewalk in July. (Xueer Lu)

For businesses, the price range between different size trash cans is considerable, from a 20-gallon trash can — the smallest offered by Waste Management —  which costs $21.92 per month, to a 7-cubic-yard bin that costs $976.69, according to Waste Management’s website

Trash services can be expensive for residents too. Gilbert Gong, the city’s recreation center director, estimated that at least a third of Chinatown residents do not have trash services. 

Gong said garbage overflow in public trash cans is often because of household garbage. Subletting in the area heavily contributes to the issue, because subletters often aren’t registering with Waste Management or paying for trash services. 

Louis Sun, 75, has been living in Chinatown since 2008 and works at Lincoln Square Recreation Center, where lots of neighbors go for ping pong, tai chi, line dancing and workouts. 

Sun sometimes sees residents use grocery bags to cover up their garbage, sneakily dumping it in trash bins when they think no one was watching. “Who would have a bag full of groceries at 7 a.m.?” Sun said. 

Sun recalled seeing an elderly woman holding a bag of garbage approaching a trash bin across from the park’s recreation center. But as soon as she saw Sun, who was wearing his red work uniform, she held onto the garbage and kept walking.

“I believe most residents try to keep the place clean. But because they don’t have access to trash bins, they put their household garbage in the public trash bins,” Gong said. “If the public trash bins get filled up, where do you stick your boba cups?”

A Public Works Department analysis shows that small cans are the most popular because of the price, not because of the needs of the residents, Duffey said. 

But the city and Waste Management do not ensure that residents and businesses are getting the right size bins. “There is flexibility for residents and businesses to subscribe to the level of service that they think that they need,” said Kristin Hathaway, assistant Public Works director. 

The city has been discussing options with Waste Management, such as a rate change, that would encourage people to buy the right size bins, she added. 

Chan pointed out that about 70% to 80% of Chinatown’s population is elderly and that trash overflowing onto the sidewalk causes trouble for those who use wheelchairs and walking sticks.

In addition, Chan said dirty streets are unappealing and could make visitors avoid going to Chinatown for shopping and dining. That hinders Chinatown’s efforts to bounce back from a recent spate of crimes, especially break-ins, as well as the pandemic. 

Oakland’s illegal trash dumping crisis is worse than ever. Here’s why.

Setting up cameras

Illegal dumping, Chan said, is not a new problem. He said Chinatown partnered with Waste Management about a decade ago to put locks on every trash bin because illegal dumping usually happens at night or early morning when there is hardly anyone on the street. However, the plan fell through because locking and unlocking trash bins required extra work for workers. 

Right now, the Oakland Chamber of Commerce is helping the community, especially businesses, set up surveillance cameras. “It can deter crimes to happen in the first place, whether it’s illegal dumping, or attacking people or robbing people,” said Chan.

In Chinatown, there are currently 300 to 400 businesses, each with an average of two to three cameras, according to Chan.

The city also has been running a surveillance camera program, since March 2022, to catch and cite illegal dumpers. The “portable observation devices” each have four cameras, including one main stationary camera and three for panning, tilting and zooming. Oakland has 16 PODs at hotspots across council districts 3, 5, 6 and 7. In about a year since they were installed, the PODs have caught 492 illegal dumpings, leading to 72 citations.  

Public Works, on average, picks up illegally dumped trash within 72 hours, Duffey told the City Council on June 27. “But now we’re talking about stopping it from being put on the streets,” he said. “That is the critical component. We have to hold people accountable.” 

Hathaway said the city currently has the funding to purchase four additional PODs as well as license plate reader cameras.

Trash isn’t just an eyesore, she noted. It raises sanitation, pollution and quality of life concerns. 

“It is a blight and it can attract vermin. And if it goes into the storm drains, it is a water quality pollutant,” she said. 

“It’s a problem that if you don’t cut it off quickly, it generates more dumping and it can lead to the further deterioration of neighborhoods.”

The majority of Oakland’s illegal dumping is removed by Public Work’s illegal dumping unit, consisting of three types of crews: the reactive crew that responds to 311 requests, the proactive crew that is deployed to illegal dumping hot spots, and the homeless encampment crew that cleans up trash and debris at encampments and helps with encampment closures.

The city also restarted its environmental enforcement unit in March 2019, which is housed in Public Works and has issued almost 2,000 citations since its relaunch.

In addition, the city holds bulky block parties for residents on the last Saturday of every month from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at 7101 Edgewater Dr. Oaklanders with proof of residency can dump bulky items there. The next bulky block party will be on Aug 26.  

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