A $10,000 stainless steel “trash cabinet” was bolted onto the Shattuck Avenue sidewalk between Addison and Center streets last week. A second cabinet will soon be installed behind it. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

A 13-foot-long cage with room for up to six trash cans under lock and key is the business community’s latest gambit for keeping the sidewalks of downtown Berkeley clean and tidy. 

A pair of back-to-back curbside “trash cabinets” are now being installed along Shattuck Avenue in front of Sushi Secrets and Happy Lemon as part of a pilot program first permitted by the city in 2019 to help “bins take up less space, make trash collection easier, and provide a more pleasing streetscape.” 

Merchants will be able to leave their garbage, recycling and compost bins in the sidewalk cages 24 hours a day, with the city’s Zero Waste collectors unlocking them at pickup time. 

John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said that if feedback is positive, he thinks many more stainless steel trash cabinets could come to line the streets of Berkeley and beyond. Future units, he said, could include ads for downtown events.

The origin of the cabinets, Caner explained, is related to the lack of alleyways downtown. 

“A lot of merchants, even though they’re not really supposed to, end up leaving the trash bins out on the sidewalk since they don’t have a place to put them inside,” he said. A letter he sent to merchants touts the cabinets for eliminating the “need to keep trash bin in your store” and the “risk of fines for not bringing bins into store after pickup.”

Commercial waste customers are currently supposed to roll bins into their stores the morning after trash pickup, though the city allows 24 hours leeway and in practice bins are frequently left all day on the sidewalk. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Caner said refuse can spill onto the street as people gather cans and bottles to sell to recycling centers, and that bins sometimes are stolen, toppled or moved down the block. “People go rummaging through them, and there’s graffiti on them and they’re grimy,” he said. “We have a 4 a.m. morning crew and a lot of what they do is dealing with cleaning up stuff that’s been removed from trash bins.”

It takes James Koh around 15 hours to gather $35 worth of cans and bottles. He said he understands why the city and business owners want to lock up garbage bins, but thinks it’s an eyesore for a city to have “a bunch of steel cages all over with a bunch of trash cans inside them.” Credit: Zac Farber

One of downtown’s models for the program, Caner said, was a “trash corral” installed in 2019 on Channing Way by the Telegraph Business Improvement District (TBID) to shield unsightly garbage cans from view. The three-sided, uncovered enclosure opens onto the street for easy pickup, and cost TBID about $4,000, including payment for muralist Nigel Sussman. TBID’s director, Alex Knox, said the reaction has been positive, and the district is now exploring adding another corral on the 2500 block of Durant Avenue.

A trash corral installed on Channing Way in 2019 by the Telegraph Business Improvement District was painted by artist Nigel Sussman. Courtesy: John Caner

Caner knew early on that downtown businesses needed a way to lock up their trash. 

He looked into off-the-shelf modular enclosures like MetroBox and CitiBin — popular in Greenwich Village, where trendy New Yorkers hide their garbage beneath planters — but their products were made with individual compartments for each bin. 

“Public works said they couldn’t afford to take the time to open each cabinet at every time for every trash bin,” Caner said. “They need to be in there and out of there, in there and out of there.”

Kinetic sculptor and metals fabricator Alex Nolan poses next to his trash-storing contraption. The side opens to help collectors take multiple bins at once. Credit: John Caner

Alex Nolan, a local welder whose giant scrap metal bear sculpture once roared on the downtown BART plaza, was commissioned to design and build a trash cabinet with sides that spring up lengthwise on hydraulics like the doors of a DeLorean — allowing collectors to grab all the bins at once. 

Nolan’s bill for his work added up to $20,000 — with the city chipping in $10,000 and the rest split between the Downtown Business Association and the owners of the Francis K. Shattuck building, whose tenants will use the cages.

Nolan said his actual cost of fabricating the prototypes was twice what he charged, though using a laser-cutting method he thinks he could manufacture future cages significantly more cheaply. For comparison, the solar-powered, trash-compacting Bigbellys — about 27 of which are now downtown — cost around $8,000 a pop and a six-container CitiBin module costs about $15,000. 

Public works director Liam Garland said that due to staff shortages in his department’s Administrative & Fiscal Services Division, it would take a week to answer exactly how the city funded the project.

Caner said the steel mesh design was informed by principles of “crime prevention through environmental design.” “How do you make things that discourage anti-social or criminal behavior?” he said. “You don’t want places people are hiding behind. One of the advantages with the stainless is you can see what the purpose is when the trash cans are in there, and you can see through to the other side with the grating.” 

He said the porous design will also make power-washing a cinch and that he personally finds the gleam of the stainless unconventionally “pretty.” “When I saw it come up yesterday, it was in the sun and it looked a little bejeweled,” he said, acknowledging it’s “funny to talk about a trash [container] being jewel-like.”

Lee Nevo, manager of the Francis K. Shattuck building and daughter of co-owner Avi Nevo, said when trash spills onto the ground, it “contributes to pests and smells.” She hopes the cabinets will “make the street more sanitary and pleasant.”

“I think having the bins enclosed in a metal cage where they’re much less visible is going to make a big difference,” she said. “To have them contained in a neat row, in a covered box, will look a lot better. Even when you try to line them up, they end up getting overfilled, banged into, knocked over. It will be cleaner and more organized.”

On Tuesday, James Koh — a former UC Berkeley student who had spent the day pushing around a shopping cart and scavenging for bottles and cans he planned to redeem for cash at the Berkeley Recycling Center — walked by the trash cage installed on Shattuck. 

He said he was sympathetic to the motivations for installing the cage, but he thought it was “an eyesore” and a waste of money. 

“A week ago on Telegraph near campus, I saw a guy randomly, wantonly throwing trash out of trash bins. I can see how that causes problems for business owners and customers,” he said. “If it was just this one, I’d be fine with that. But if they were, like, everywhere … Why would I want to walk around a city that has a bunch of steel cages all over with a bunch of trash cans inside them?”

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Berkeleyside learned about the pilot program from a reader who wondered why a metal cage had suddenly appeared on the sidewalk. 

Our staff’s initial theory was bike storage, which Caner found amusing. 

“It will be six months or a year before we consider rolling out anymore,” he said. “If for some reason we find we don’t like it as a trash cabinet, maybe we’ve found another purpose.” 

Zac Farber

Before joining Berkeleyside as managing editor in April 2021, Zac was editor of the Southwest Journal, a 30,000-circulation biweekly community paper in Minneapolis, MN. While there, he led coverage of...