One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s … Hobby?

In the early spring of 2020, the world stopped for many of us, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us to stay home to help slow the spread of the disease. As we paused our everyday activities, boredom grew. And out of that boredom, for some, came new hobbies and ways to pass the time. For those of us with small children, the first year of the pandemic was doubly frustrating; not only were we cooped up inside our own homes, but so were our kids. And while video games and other screen-time endeavors were certainly part of the solution, for many, so were walks around the neighborhood. Fresh air, the chance to speak with some neighbors in a socially-distanced way, and exercise — it’s a great solution.

And an even better one, if you turn it into a civic improvement program while you’re at it.

Just ask San Francisco’s Vince Yuen.

Before the pandemic hit, Yuen was a self-employed sales consultant, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. His wife Megan worked for a retail consultant and the couple decided that, with everyone stuck at home, it made sense for Vince to stop working and focus on their two young daughters. Quickly, the dad and two kids added a walk around the neighborhood as part of their daily ritual during the first year of the pandemic response, in addition to riding their bikes, rollerblading, and tending to a backyard garden. But, as Yuen told the local NBC affiliate, that got boring. They looked for new ways to pass the time and, “on their daily walks, Yuen had noticed how much trash there was, so he purchased a few trash-pickers and he and his daughters added that activity to their walks.”

And like the trash itself, Yuen and his kids’ efforts spread. A few days in, per NBC, a neighbor they didn’t know took notice that the Yuen family was picking up litter and asked if he could help, and of course, Yuen said yes. Then, as the Chronicle shares, “slowly, the block grew so clean, their trash walks got longer. [More] neighbors spotted them and joined, and their area grew notably cleaner. A post about his efforts on Nextdoor took off, and still more people tagged along.” Yuen’s efforts to make his community a little bit cleaner became bigger than he had ever imagined.

In March 2021 — a year after the pandemic response began — Yuen turned this pro-social hobby into something bigger and more formal. His organization, called “Refuse Refuse” (get it?), organizes neighborhood cleanups multiple times a week across various parts of San Francisco. For example, if you want to join one on Wednesday, March 1st (that’s tomorrow), there’s a 9:30 AM gathering at Geary and Arguello Boulevards (here’s a map) and a 4:00 PM one at Octavia and Hayes Street (map). Can’t make it to those? They have lots more on their “cleanups” page on their website. 

To date, according to the Refuse Refuse website, the organization has collected more than 250,000 gallons of trash over the last few years, or about half of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And for Yuen and his efforts, there have been a number of accolades. For example, in April of 2021, the official Twitter account of the San Francisco Public Works department shared news of his efforts and, in December of last year, Axios San Francisco named him one of the city’s “most powerful people” for his ongoing efforts to “clean and empower others to address their neighborhood trash troubles.”

Bonus fact: Not everything in garbage bags is necessarily garbage, not even in San Francisco. In 1989, the region was struck by a devasting earthquake that claimed the lives of 63 people. Baseball great Joe DiMaggio survived the catastrophe and made sure to return to his home in SF as soon as he could — because he had a small fortune hidden away there, according to the book “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life.” Per the book, via ABC News, “DiMaggio rushed home after [the earthquake] and emerged with $600,000 in a garbage bag.”

From the Archives: The San Francisco Bushman: The man who makes a living scaring passersby.