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San Francisco litter clean-up hobby becomes full-time volunteer campaign

San Francisco man turns family clean-up project into an active nonprofit
San Francisco man turns family clean-up project into an active nonprofit 03:51

SAN FRANCISCO -- A San Francisco man who led his family on a service project to collect litter is now cleaning up city streets full time with thousands of volunteers.

Vincent Yuen would walk his kids to school and pass by what others left on the street.

"We're like, 'Someone should pick that up.' But we never did," he said.

Until one day, when Yuen and his family set out to pick up trash as a simple way to get active outside during the pandemic.

"It was satisfying to see a street that's so much cleaner," Yuen said.

So he never stopped cleaning.

"Now that I've seen the light, my civic awakening, it's like, if more of us would do this, you'd see some amazing results," he explained.

Yuen started the nonprofit Refuse Refuse SF in 2021. His grassroots campaign spread throughout the city.

Volunteer teams regularly tackle some of the filthiest streets, like a stretch of Masonic Avenue in Laurel Heights where syringes often get swept up.

"There used to be trash everywhere, tents, graffiti. Now that we take care of it, it's much, much less," he said.

In fact, when they first started volunteers would collect more than 2,500 pieces of trash along the section of Masonic. Their weekly visits show they've cut down debris by 80 percent and that's good for the whole neighborhood.

"You saw the crew," Yuen pointed down the street. "They went to different directions because it's so much cleaner here. We send people down Anza, to Laurel Village, all around this Muni depot."

He says volunteers' work reflects their civic pride. They've removed some 400,000 gallons of trash off city streets from more than 1,600 cleanups in two years.

Groups of neighbors, school kids, and company employees get involved. Jamie Kendall is among the program's 10,000 unique volunteers.

"Immediately upon meeting Vince, I was swept up by his enthusiasm and desire to get the job done," said Kendall, who's been a participant for two years.

"It's rewarding. It's fun. It's not like it's a chore. I never did a clean up and said, 'I shouldn't have done that,'" Yuen added.

Refuse Refuse has become more than a new hobby for Yuen. The sales consultant now leads the effort as his full-time job and life passion.

In addition to the clean-up events, he also gives Trash Talk presentations in schools and the community. He discusses reducing the use of single-use plastics which volunteers pick up often off the streets.

His program, funded by grants and foundations, is growing and building community. 

"I do believe in that butterfly effect of goodness, when you put that positivity out there, it does multiply," he reflected.

For inspiring thousands of people to refuse refuse on San Francisco streets, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Vincent Yuen.

Parties interested in volunteering can visit the official Refuse Refuse website.

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