Trash Dumps and the Hidden History of the Bay Shoreline

Click here to view the interactive map which accompanies this post.

First there were marshes; then there were dumps. The dumps were eventually turned into regulated landfills, and the landfills into shoreline parks.

After the Gold Rush, a full one-third of the San Francisco Bay was diked off or filled in for development. Over three dozen trash dumps (both official and unofficial) lined the Bay shoreline. The public had access to less than six miles of shoreline, but far from being the recreational haven that the Bay Trail is today, the old shoreline greeted visitors with views of a struggling Bay choked with raw sewage and industrial pollution.

In 1961, three women mobilized thousands of residents to save the Bay from its path of destruction. Their movement was called Save The Bay, and it sought to stop the filling of the shoreline, the polluting of its waters, and to bring the Bay back from the brink. The movement was a success: one by one, the dumps were closed off, capped with fresh soil, and for the vast majority, turned into parks. There are over a dozen such parks open today, making up some of the most popular open spaces along the Bay shoreline with renowned views of the Bay atop what, unbeknownst to many, is thousands of tons of trash.

Click above to go to an interactive dump map
Click above to go to an interactive dump map

We have come a long way from the Dump Era of last century. Use this interactive map to explore what the Bay used to look like when dumps ruled the land. From a boy’s first bicycle scavenged among the rubble to an all-Italian worker-owned trash company, the stories embedded in this map paint a way of life now buried (though not so deeply) underground.

Take one classic scene from the Dump Era:

Let’s go back 50 year or so and imagine it’s a Saturday morning on the Peninsula. After cleaning out their garages and filling up car trunks…families took a trip to the dump on the Bay. Many came in their expensive cars absolutely loaded with trash, old-timers recall. Once at the dump, socializing began, as residents saw friends and people stood around and talked. Inevitably, a few brought along a bottle of wine. It soon turned into a dump party of sorts, while people scoured around looking at what others had dropped off.  Most cars went home with trunks once again filled from these precious free finds.[2]

Before there were dumps and dump parties, there were wetlands, home to a thriving habitat of flora and fauna. Decades of rampant filling in of shallow areas destroyed 90 percent of San Francisco Bay’s wetlands. Scientists say the Bay needs 100,000 acres of tidal marsh to thrive, more than double that which exists today.

Play your part in contributing to the revival of the Bay. Volunteer at one of our restoration sites.  Get outside and discover up-close the hidden history of the Bay shoreline. Visit one of the dumps-turned-parks featured here and see how far we have come from a time when the stench of garbage pervaded the flatlands and the Bay was best known as a receptacle for residents’ refuse. Take your dog for a walk at San Mateo’s Seal Point Park or bird-watch from Berkeley’s Caesar Chavez Park and you’ll be reminded that our history isn’t behind us – it’s lying right under our feet.

[1]Please note: this map is not exhaustive. If you know of any former dump sites not included, contact

[2] Diamond, Diana.  “Era ending – no more dumps,” Daily Post.  18 July 2011.

Are Butts the New Bottles? NY Proposes Cigarette Butt Redemption Program

A NY Cigarette Butt Redemption Bill stands to keep cigarette butts off the streets and out of the water. If the bill passes, this frog will be one happy croaker. CC image courtesy of Bradley Gordon 2008
A NY Cigarette Butt Redemption Bill stands to keep cigarette butts off the streets and out of the water. If the bill passes, this frog will be one happy croaker.
CC image courtesy of Bradley Gordon 2008

New York Assemblymember Michael DenDekker is not one to wait around for easy answers.  As a retired NYC Sanitation Worker, DenDekker knows firsthand the scale of America’s tobacco litter problem.  And, as a politician, he knows firsthand the impact this litter has on our economy.

His solution?  Create a redemption program (similar to the current CRV for bottles and cans) to incentivize smokers to properly dispose of their butts.  The bill (A3756) will add a 1-cent deposit on every cigarette.  The money generated will fund collection costs of the returned butts as well as an anti-litter public outreach campaign.  The returned butts will be recycled into solvents that prevent rust or raw material for making plastic molds.

The result?  A healthier environment, less litter in the streets, less public funds spent on cleanup of preventable pollution, and the creation of new jobs and new raw materials.  NYC spends up to $500,000 annually in solid waste cost to dispose of cigarette butts alone.  That’s a significant amount the city stands to save were all these butts recycled instead of landfilled or littered.  “The bill saves taxpayer money, creates new jobs, and has a positive environmental impact,” says DenDekker.  “That makes it a win-win.”

Save The Bay has been hard at work preventing pollution in the San Francisco Bay by advocating for polystyrene (“Styrofoam”) and plastic bag bans throughout the region.  Today, more than 50% of Bay Area residents live in communities that have banned plastic bags, and over 30 cities and counties in the area have banned polystyrene food ware in restaurants.  Save The Bay is proud of our accomplishments, but we know that the fight against pollution is far from over.

According to the Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butt litter accounts for one in every five items collected during cleanups, making it the most prevalent form of litter on earth.  It is estimated that 4.5 trillion cigarette butts, representing 1.7 billion pounds, end up as litter around the world each year.  Cigarette filters are made out of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic which never biodegrades.

San Francisco estimates that it spends a total of 11 million dollars annually cleaning up butts.  Discarded carelessly on city streets and washed straight into the Bay through storm drains, tobacco waste is the most pernicious item to enter bay waters, costing our cities millions of dollars in cleanup, harming local wildlife, and creating a serious eyesore for residents.

Tobacco litter poses a major threat to the health of the San Francisco Bay, and the problem calls for creative and innovative policy solutions like that presented by Assemblyman DenDekker.  At the same time, there are multiple ways you can personally contribute to a more beautiful, healthy, and thriving San Francisco Bay.  If you smoke, always throw your butts away in trash cans and encourage others to do the same; ask your elected officials what they are doing to address the tobacco pollution issue, and join a cleanup day with Save The Bay.