The State of Trash in the Bay: Our 2016 Report

The size of the dots above correspond to the relative population of each city. Cities highlighted in green have already achieved the 70% trash reduction required by July 2017, while the cities highlighted in yellow, orange, and red are falling short of this milestone. Take time to hover over the map to see how much your city has reduced its trash problem.

The State of Trash in 2016: Mapping Bay Area Progress in Reducing Trash in Our Creeks

Trash flowing through stormwater systems and into the Bay is one of the most visible environmental problems plaguing the Bay Area. The abundance of trash drifting along our waterways spoils local shorelines, harms wildlife, and makes its way out to already polluted oceans. This is why, in 2010, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered 78 Bay Area cities and agencies to eliminate trash from their stormwater systems by July 1, 2022. They must also demonstrate progress toward this goal with a 70 percent reduction in trash from 2009 levels by July of this year, and an 80 percent reduction by July 2019.

Last year, we wrote about how this trash reduction effort is progressing, and we are back this year to give you an update on progress made in 2016.

As you can see from the maps above, there has been both progress and setbacks throughout the region. Comparing the 2015 and 2016 trash reduction maps, we see the largest improvements in a handful of communities including San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Contra Costa County, while little to no progress has occurred in many larger and resource-strapped cities, like those bordering the Bay in the East Bay. This regional inconsistency is concerning because cities with the worst trash problems often have the fewest resources to cope with them. This is why Save The Bay is calling upon state and local elected officials to secure funding for reducing trash in our cities and the Bay.

Many Cities Lack Resources and Are Falling Behind

In 2016, cities were asked to demonstrate a 60 percent reduction from 2009 levels in the amount of trash flowing from urban areas into storm drains. Unfortunately, out of the 78 Bay Area communities and agencies covered by the Regional Water Board’s trash requirements, 26 were not in compliance with the 2016 target. These 26 cities are now in danger of not achieving the 70 percent reduction in trash required by this July. To help these cities move forward, the Regional Water Board required each of them to put forward a plan to reach 70 percent. The plans vary from highly-detailed, multi-page reports like those submitted by the cities of Berkeley and Pittsburg, to brief outlines that barely address funding and implementation, like those submitted by Vallejo and Contra Costa County (covering the county’s unincorporated communities) .

Residents of the 26 out-of-compliance municipalities should be concerned about the lack of progress, not only from an environmental standpoint, but also from a legal one. Failure to reduce trash according to the Regional Water Board’s timeline could open cities up to costly penalties or even third-party lawsuits. This is why it is so important to implement effective strategies to reduce trash immediately.

Reducing Trash: What Works?

One of the most common strategies cities use to reduce stormwater trash is the installation of trash-capturing devices in key spots. Examples of these devices range from relatively small screens placed inside storm drains to giant, underground tanks that trap a large volume of trash while allowing water to flow through. Beyond trash-capture devices, street sweeping, neighborhood clean-ups, illegal dumping abatement programs, and providing more public trash bins are other popular approaches municipalities can take to reduce stormwater trash. The Regional Water Board also endorses bans on plastic bags and Styrofoam, and many Bay Area cities have adopted one or both as part of their trash-reduction strategy. Finally, although stopping trash before it reaches a creek is best option, the Regional Water Board encourages and offers incentives for creek and shoreline cleanups to reduce the negative impacts of the trash that does make its way into the watershed.

Despite the wide variety of potential trash-reduction strategies, cities face many significant obstacles. These include widespread illegal dumping, insufficient state and local funding, difficulties accurately measuring trash in stormwater systems, and the large amount of trash that flows from areas that cities don’t control, such as highways and private property.

Taking A Closer Look

Here’s a more detailed look at five very different Bay Area cities and the progress each has made in reducing trash in their communities. Hover over each of our digital maps to view the current (blue) or planned (green) locations of trash capturing devices throughout each city.

Richmond (Population 107,571)
Richmond claims a 27.3 percent reduction in 2016, compared to a 44 percent reduction in 2015. This sizable lapse over the last year means that Richmond has fallen further behind its target for stormwater trash by the July 2017 deadline. Fortunately, Richmond is further along in implementing its trash reduction plan than most cities. It has already developed a trial program to award small grants for neighborhood beautification, and executed a contract to install trash-capture devices throughout the city. But Richmond faces challenges, including securing adequate funding for stormwater projects and working with Caltrans and other agencies to address trash problems in areas where city maintenance workers don’t have easy access.

Oakland (Population 406,253)
Oakland claims a 44.6 percent reduction of stormwater trash in 2016, compared to a 47 percent reduction in 2015. Oakland’s plan to reach 70 percent reduction is well designed and varied, applying a mix of all of the trash-reduction strategies described above. Like Richmond, Oakland’s primary obstacle will be securing the funding necessary to implement its plan. But opportunities exist in the near future: The city is beginning its budget planning process, and Save The Bay is working to ensure that the City Council is well aware that city is falling behind on its trash reduction requirements. Also, Oakland voters passed Measure KK last November, a $600 million infrastructure bond which could help to pay for the trash capture devices, illegal dumping response program, and other strategies that city staff need to implement to reach the 70% reduction requirement.

San Jose (Population 998,537)
San Jose claims a 53.3 percent reduction in 2016, up from a 30 percent reduction in 2015. To reach 70 percent, San Jose is focusing nearly all its efforts into installing a number of large trash collecting devices in areas of the city most burdened by trash. In addition to trash originating on city streets, San Jose struggles with a serious homelessness problem; many of these individuals set up encampments along local rivers and creeks, resulting in the flow of large amounts of trash, bacteria, and other pollution into the Bay from these waterways. To truly achieve zero trash, the city will not only need to stop the flow of trash into storm drains, but will also need to implement multifaceted solutions to address homelessness and reduce the number of people living along city creeks.

San Mateo (Population 101,128)
San Mateo is claiming a 60 percent reduction in 2016, compared to 51 percent in 2015. It is nearly on track to achieve a 70 percent reduction in trash by July. San Mateo has approached its trash reduction requirements with a variety of strategies, including a robust community engagement effort called Team Up to Clean Up; responding promptly to illegal dumping reports; increasing enforcement of parking restrictions on street sweeping days; and installing 144 storm drain screens and other trash barriers.

In November, city staff estimated the cost of achieving 100 percent reduction in trash by 2022 at a hefty $11.2 million. This is a very important step in ensuring that San Mateo meets the requirements put forth by the Regional Water Board and that it does its part to keep trash out of the Bay. It is now the responsibility of the City Council to figure out where these funds will come from.

Walnut Creek (Population 66,900)
Walnut Creek is claiming a 93.7 percent reduction in 2016, compared to an 87 percent reduction in 2015. Unlike most cities throughout the Bay, where trash reduction strategies revolve primarily around installation of devices to capture trash, Walnut Creek focused on street sweeping, increased storm drain cleaning, downtown beautification projects, installation of more public trash bins, and anti-litter enforcement to achieve its estimated reduction. If the city can maintain this progress, Walnut Creek is shaping up to be an early model for achieving zero trash.

Where We Go From Here
Although we have seen areas of significant progress in reducing stormwater trash since the Water Board implemented its zero trash requirement, it is clear from the maps above that the Bay Area still has a long way to go. Save The Bay will continue to work with local communities and the Regional Water Board to ensure 100 percent stormwater trash reduction is achieved by 2022, but we need your help.

Take time to organize or volunteer for neighborhood cleanups, urge your local officials to prioritize stormwater projects, and stay tuned for other opportunities to take action.

Update: Prop 56 Passes for a Butt Free Bay

Through the Gates
By voting Yes on Prop 56, California voters said yes to a Butt Free Bay and to the inevitable impact it will make on reducing the amount of tobacco litter making its way into our local ecosystems. Photo by Dave Gordon.

In a resounding victory for Save The Bay’s Butt Free Bay Campaign, 63 percent of Californians said Yes on Prop 56. Prop 56 will increase the tax on tobacco products by $2 per pack effective April 1, 2017.

In addition to saving Californians billions per year in healthcare costs, Prop 56 will make a noticeable difference in decreasing the estimated 3 billion cigarette butts littered in the Bay Area each year. Economists project that Prop 56’s tax increase will decrease smoking rates, all while providing additional funding for anti-smoking programs in the state. This means less toxic cigarette butts draining from our streets and sidewalks into creeks that lead to the Bay, where they wreak havoc on local ecosystems.

We would like to thank the coalition of anti-tobacco organizations for their partnership in fighting tobacco special interests, and California voters for their overwhelming support of Yes on 56. Stay tuned for more information on how you can answer the call to action and take additional steps in our fight for a Butt Free Bay.

Yes on Prop 56 to Reduce Toxic Cigarette Butts in the Bay

Like many California voters, it’s likely you have received mailers or seen TV ads promoting the many health benefits of Prop 56’s tax on tobacco products. Less is known, however, about Prop 56’s environmental benefits.

The frightening truth is that non-biodegradable cigarette butts are the most common type of trash found in the Bay. This is why, as part of our Butt Free Bay campaign, Save The Bay proudly supports Prop 56 and the inevitable impact it will make on reducing the amount of tobacco litter making its way into our local ecosystems.

Heron-Cigarette Change
Prop 56’s environmental benefits could make a world of difference for the Bay and for our oceans.

Data shows that between one-third and two-thirds of all cigarettes smoked end up as litter, and Save The Bay estimates that 3 billion cigarette butts are littered in the Bay Area each year. Unfortunately, all too often the abundance of cigarette butts we see lining our sidewalks and blanketing our streets make their way into stormwater drains. From there they flow into creeks and waterways that lead directly to the Bay. As a result, cigarette butts are the most common form of litter collected along Bay Area shorelines, accounting for 40 percent of all trash collected on Coastal Cleanup Day over the last 20 years. All that litter creates a financial impact for taxpayers as well, with the city of San Francisco estimating they spent $6 million to clean up cigarette butts in 2009 alone. By reducing the number of cigarettes smoked, Prop 56 will reduce cigarette litter and help to shift some of this financial burden away from average taxpayers, taxing only those who use tobacco products, while benefiting the environmental health of the entire Bay Area.

Contrary to widespread opinion, cigarette butts don’t just disintegrate after being casually discarded. In fact, cigarette filters are made up of a non-biodegradable plastic called cellulose acetate that can remain in the environment for up to a decade. These butts contain many toxic chemicals and heavy metals, such as acetic acid, chromium, lead, and arsenic, that then leach out and pose a toxic threat to our Bay and oceans. One study showed that just a single cigarette butt in a liter of water killed half of all small fish living in it. Additionally, cigarettes butts can be mistaken for food by Bay Area wildlife, leading to deadly results such as choking and malnutrition.

Studies suggest that even a minor increase in the cigarette tax can have a noticeable effect on the number of cigarettes smoked. Consequentially, Prop 56’s sizeable $2 tax increase could lead to a significant reduction in cigarette consumption in the Bay Area and a huge effect on the amount of litter reaching the Bay.  This is why we’re proud to join organizations like the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association in supporting Yes on 56, and urge you to do the same. Want to get more involved? Visit, and, of course, get out and vote on Nov. 8!