Meet the San Francisco man with the dirt inside the city’s famous dirty streets

Vincent Yuen likes to talk trash.

He walks around town every day, picking it up. He keeps logbooks, showing how many he found and where. He spices up his conversation with words like “garbology”, the study of waste. His wife calls waste her greatest passion.

Lucky for Yuen, he lives in San Francisco, a dirty city that offers him a case study on just about every sidewalk. Lucky for San Francisco, Yuen is determined to see our city sparkle.

Yuen is the founder of Refuse Refuse – which means reject trash – which has grown from a one-man clean-up operation outside his home in Inner Richmond to a city-wide effort, attracting legions of volunteers with their plastic bags and garbage collectors. Since its founding in March 2021, Refuse Refuse has collected 58,136 gallons of waste.

I added a few extra gallons to the Sunday count while cleaning up North Beach. Yuen tweeted a few months ago that he would love former Giants star Hunter Pence; his wife, Lexi Pence; chronic culture critic Peter Hartlaub; and me to join him.

After scheduling conflicts and rain delays, we finally joined with many other volunteers organized by Together SF, a civic engagement and volunteer group that helps Refuse Refuse coordinate its events. Before picking up the trash, I asked Pence – known as The Reverend for his inspiring locker room sermons – for a pep talk in 2022 as the pandemic progresses.

“’Finding Nemo’ is our mantra – keep swimming, keep swimming,” he said. “Pick up trash, plant trees, love each other, be kind. We just have to keep doing the best we can with what we have. “

Yuen gave the crowd some advice before they started. Namely, stick to the trash of beginners and leave needles, droppings and dead animals to the professionals. On that cheerful note, we left.

community garbage cleanup in North Beach and Chinatown hosted by Refuse Refuse.”/>

Former Giants right fielder Hunter Pence works with other volunteers during a community garbage cleanup in North Beach and Chinatown hosted by Refuse Refuse.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

It turns out that you notice new things about your city when your eyes are fixed on the ground. For example, despite seeing very few cigarette smokers these days, San Francisco is covered in cigarette butts.

Yuen said they make up 35% of the garbage he finds throughout the city and even more in some neighborhoods. He said Hayes Valley is the # 1 neighborhood when it comes to cigarette butts; there they make up 60% of the litter.

Other wastes often spotted on Sunday were disposable masks, coffee mugs and their cardboard sleeves, candy wrappers, bags of crisps, banana peels and napkins. Unique pieces included a thank you card, windshield wiper, and a coconut with a straw in it.

Yuen said the biggest problem with waste is the single-use products that companies produce over and over again and that consumers recklessly use and throw away – too often in the field.

Inefficient municipal trash cans and their paltry number are another factor, he said. They are easily broken and scratched, spilling trash around them. In the city’s never-ending saga of building a new and improved tin can, the manufacturing company tasked with making the prototypes is expected to have them placed for testing on city streets in June, according to a spokesperson. of Public Works.

In addition to the city’s dingy trash cans, another culprit in San Francisco is the wind that catches trash, including those from unlocked and unlocked household trash cans, and blows it up. Yuen said he found a lot more garbage on the west side of the streets than on the east side because of the winds. The dirtiest street in town, he said, is Brighton Avenue in the Ingleside neighborhood, which is in a wind tunnel.

“It doesn’t help that they have a McDonald’s on one side and a liquor store on the other,” he said.

Overall, however, Yuen said the dirtiest neighborhoods are the usual suspects: the Tenderloin, South of Market, and the Mission. He said the homeless population compounds the city’s waste problem, but is unfairly blamed for having an outsized role in the affair. Instead, he said, people of all income levels in all neighborhoods are responsible for our dirty city.

Volunteers clean up North Beach during a community effort organized by Refuse Refuse.

Volunteers clean up North Beach during a community effort organized by Refuse Refuse.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

Yuen’s fascination with waste is a new development. So is his commitment to community service and dedication to San Francisco despite living here since 2003. The 40-year-old Pasadena native has worked as an independent business advisor for years and saved enough money to take time off during the pandemic. His wife, Megan Yuen, works as a director of account operations for a retail consultant.

Looking for safe outdoor activities for his daughters, ages 5 and 7, he turned to garbage collection outside their Inner Richmond home every day. Slowly the block became so clean that their walks in the garbage lengthened. Neighbors spotted them and joined in, and their neighborhood got considerably cleaner. An article about his efforts on Nextdoor took off, and more people followed.

In March 2021, he formalized the effort, although Refuse Refuse is just a community service group with a website. It is not a non-profit and does not accept donations. He earns $ 35,000 from a six-month contract with Together SF and Shine On SF, another new civic group engaged in cleaning up the city’s streets.

After a few hours of collecting trash with Yuen, I felt tired but satisfied. There aren’t many civic issues in San Francisco that you can solve on your own and see an immediate difference. I will definitely be doing more cleanups this year, and you can do that at as well.

Yuen doesn’t know what comes next. Friends urged him to get into politics, but he’s not convinced he could make more changes to town hall than he can with his garbage collector. He will therefore stick to it until the day, he hopes, when San Francisco’s reputation changes from being dirty to virgin. He thinks he owes it to the city.

“I haven’t been a very civically engaged person,” Yuen admitted. “I really haven’t done much for my city. I couldn’t appoint my district supervisor if my life depended on it until recently.

“I own a house in San Francisco, which puts me in the top 1% of the world. Talk about privilege, ”he said. “It only took a global pandemic to shake my head. “

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @hknightsf

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