Bay Pollution and the World’s Oceans

Plastic Pollution on Malaysian beach
Plastic trash washed up on a beach in Malaysia. Trash flowing out of San Francisco Bay and into the Pacific Ocean can make its way to distant shores. Photo by:

Spanish explorers once called San Francisco Bay el brazo del mar, “the arm of the sea.” Highlighting this connection with the world’s oceans is even more appropriate in our time, as we observe the impact of plastic pollution flowing from the Bay out into our oceans.

While Save The Bay advocates for a healthy Bay, plastic pollution contributes to a global trash problem. Toxic plastic trash can make its way from our streets into our waterways and ultimately out into the ocean via the Golden Gate. Now consider the geography of our region – a heavily populated metropolitan area surrounding the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas – and you can imagine the scale of this issue.

The largest source of pollution in the Bay is from runoff from city streets, much of which is trash. In most Bay Area cities, this trashy runoff flows directly into the Bay untreated.

Into The High Seas

How does our trash fit into the bigger picture of ocean pollution? Well, consider this: Humans worldwide release between 5.3 million and 14 million tons of plastic into the ocean annually. Nine million tons of plastic is the equivalent of 136 billion plastic milk jugs – which would stretch more than halfway to Mars if stacked up.

This is all the more deplorable, as scientists tell us plastic may never biodegrade. Moreover, the average use time of a plastic bag is only 12 minutes, but a single bag can continue polluting the oceans for hundreds of years. In that time span, discarded pieces of plastic can gather in one of five ocean gyres, where strong currents act as shredders, causing these massive, floating heaps of gathered plastic to be reduced to countless smaller particles. These micro-particles of plastic can become coated with toxic substances like PCBs before they are ingested by smaller marine organisms. Researchers are concerned that fish that consume the plastics could reabsorb the toxic substances and pass them up the food chain.

Each year, Californians throw away 123,000 tons of plastic bags and many of them end up as litter in our oceans. Currently, 100 million tons of trash are in the North Pacific Gyre, while in some parts of the Pacific, plastic exceeds plankton 6 to 1.

Plastic Bay

Do you know that a study found an average of three pieces of trash along every foot of Bay Area streams that lead to the Bay? 90 percent of trash in our waterways does not biodegrade.

But this is not all the result of throwaway bags – plastic food and beverage containers such as polystyrene foam are some of the most ubiquitous trash items fouling the Bay and local waterways. Even when placed in trash or recycling bins, these lightweight items are often picked up by wind and blown into the gutters – where they flow into creeks and storm drains and then into the Bay and the ocean. Polystyrene foam is the second most abundant form of beach debris in California.

Another ubiquitous trash item is the cigarette filter – toxic, plastic trash that contains dangerous chemicals and heavy metals including lead, chromium, and arsenic. In one study, a single cigarette filter in a liter of water killed half the fish living there. Over 7 million people live in the Bay Area, adding up to an estimated 3 billion cigarettes littered in the Bay Area each year. During Coastal Cleanup Days, these make up nearly 40% of all litter by item.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Think of the ripple effect environmental legislation has had in the Bay Area. Think of our string of “firsts.” One bag ban has led to another – and as plastic pollution is ultimately a global problem, our actions may inspire governments of the other regions and countries to do the same. Toxic trash is a big issue and will take all of us.

Here’s what you can do to prevent toxic trash from flowing into the Bay and out into the ocean:

  • First and foremost, don’t litter.
  • Participate in community cleanups, like Save The Bay’s volunteer events.
  • Pick up trash when you see it in the street or at the Bay shoreline and creeks.
  • Support policies that will reduce the amount of trash discharged to the Bay.
  • Use less. Bring your own cloth bags when you go shopping and your own cup for coffee drinks.
  • Let businesses you patronize know that you care about litter. Ask them to offer reusable alternatives, and make sure their trash cans outside are not overflowing!