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.

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!

Notes from the Front Lines of the New War on Smoking

East Bay Express Smoking Cigarette Butts Save The Bay Pollution Prevention Awareness
A shot of the cover of the East Bay Express’s “New Warn On Smoking” article.

Last month, the East Bay Express published an enlightening and comprehensive article summarizing the impact tobacco waste has on the Bay Area’s residents and wildlife. A little over a year ago, Save the Bay launched the Butt Free Bay campaign to reduce cigarette butt pollution in the Bay.  Allison Chan, Save The Bay’s Clean Bay Campaign Manager, states in the article “Cigarette butts are not like every other type of litter. They are toxic.” This short and sweet statement speaks volumes about just how bad tobacco and its byproducts are.

As the article notes, “They [Save the Bay] face an uphill fight. The plastic bag industry spent millions on its failed effort to defeat a state ban, and Big Tobacco can be expected to unleash an even larger torrent of money to combat those who would limit its profits.” That’s why Save The Bay will keep working to enact local outdoor smoking ordinances, as well as educate local residents about the importance of where we put our butts (no pun intended).

2,635 Pieces of Tiny Toxic Trash in San Mateo

An empty pack of cigarettes and cigarette butts found near a creek in San Mateo

Growing up in the Bay Area, I never gave a second thought to cigarette butts. I definitely saw them on the ground, at festivals—everywhere really. They were just a part of the urban landscape. I never contemplated cigarette butts being a problem, because I’m not a cigarette smoker. Drug Free programs at school taught me about why the actual act of smoking cigarettes is bad. I even got to see and feel a real healthy lung compared to a lung belonging to a life-long smoker—believe me I’m scarred.

However, I never received the message about the toxicity of cigarette waste until now.  Something I didn’t know is the “cotton” filter we think helps reduce toxins from the cigarette is not actually cotton, but plastic (cellulose acetate)—nor does it work.  The plastic filters from butts do not biodegrade. Instead, they end up in storm drains that eventually flow into our waterways and bay.

Cigarette butts are the number one form of litter found on International Coastal Cleanup Day worldwide. Toxins from the cigarettes leach into the water, poisoning fish, birds, and other wildlife. According to the American Lung Association in California (ALA), adopting tobacco control laws in the Bay Area and other major cities can help reduce a significant amount of cigarette pollution in California. This is one of the reasons we targeted the City of San Mateo to conduct cigarette butt surveys. San Mateo has one of the lowest grades for outdoor smoking ordinances according to the ALA 2014 Tobacco Control Report.

Earlier this month, a team from Save the Bay took to the streets of San Mateo to collect cigarette butts.   We broke up into 3 pairs to survey 15 locations with the highest potential for smokers: recreational areas, sidewalks, bus stops, and shopping centers.

Allison Chan, Save the Bay’s Clean Bay Campaign manager, and I began our journey at the Borel Square shopping center.  We immediately sparked people’s curiosity by wearing gloves, masks, and skeptical faces while looking at the ground. “Did you guys lose something?” a man asked as he entered 24 Hour Fitness. “No, we are doing a survey for cigarette butts,” I said. “Oh! There are so many of them around my neighborhood in San Carlos it’s disgusting, thank you so much and good luck,” he replied.  This was one of the many positive reactions we received while informing people about the study.  One surprising reaction was from a man who became so paranoid that he frantically started picking up cigarette butts in front of his business. We tried to tell him that we were doing a survey, so he didn’t need to pick them up, but we couldn’t understand each other due to a language barrier. He eventually stopped and retreated into his business taking the cigarette butts with him. There’s no way to know how many cigarette butts he picked up, which is bad news for our litter survey. Too bad more people aren’t motivated to pick up their butts.

After 3 hours and 6 people surveying throughout San Mateo we received astonishing results. We collected 2,635 cigarette butts! The greatest amount of cigarette butts, which was 912, was collected from recreational areas (parks and trails). The most mind-blowing result of them all was the 500 cigarette butts found at one bus stop. In a nutshell, this survey shined a bright light on an even bigger problem throughout the San Francisco Bay.

Surveying San Mateo for cigarette butts completely changed my perspective on cigarettes. I always knew they were bad, but now I know that it is a problem that affects everyone — not just smokers themselves. We all appreciate living near the water, so why pollute it? Although cigarettes are small and seem like a back drop to what we see every day, collectively they pose a huge environmental problem. Click here to tell your city to adopt an outdoor smoking ban and create a butt free bay.

Working Toward a Butt Free Bay This Coastal Cleanup Day

You Decide: Which City Will We Make #ButtFree Next?
You decide: Which city will we make #ButtFree next?

Imagine an event where on a single day each year, people around the world spend 4 hours picking up trash along their local creek or beach, helping to illuminate the impact trash is having on water quality and wildlife worldwide.

Good news: That event is happening this Saturday and it has reached a milestone. International Coastal Cleanup Day is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and we’re tackling the single most abundant type of trash in our waterways: cigarette butts.

Last week, Save The Bay released our Cigarette Butt Litter Hot Spots map, showing 16 Bay Area cities with some of the worst cigarette butt pollution problems in our region. The data for this map came from Coastal Cleanup Day 2013. Volunteers at clean-up sites around the Bay  recorded the types of trash they found. This information helps us to understand what kinds of trash are most prevalent in our creeks and on our shorelines. Cigarette butts have been the #1 item collected on Coastal Cleanup Day for the last 20 years.

To help stem the flow of cigarette butts into the Bay, we’re asking Bay Area cities to adopt and enforce outdoor smoking restrictions. What’s interesting about the locations on our map is that some have already adopted strong restrictions, while others have not. The American Lung Association grades cities each year on the strength of their rules for smoking in outdoor spaces, including dining areas, parks, bus stops, and public events. What we’re learning is that a smoking ordinance alone is not sufficient to prevent tobacco litter. Cities must also educate the community about the ordinance and work proactively to ensure compliance in order for outdoor smoking restrictions to reduce litter.

The question we’re posing to you is: Where should we focus our efforts next? We’ve supported the City of El Cerrito in adopting their smoking ordinance, which includes strong outdoor smoking rules and is likely to be finalized next month. We’ve helped to kick off public education on Berkeley’s smoking ban with bus stop ads throughout downtown. Which city should Save The Bay work with next to achieve a Butt Free Bay? Click here to vote: