From your backyard to the Bay, it’s time to cleanup!

In almost every city, trashy runoff flows directly into the Bay, untreated.

Distressing images of birds trapped in plastic debris and trash fouling beaches have sadly become common news stories. Events like International Coastal Clean Up Day (Saturday, September 16) and National Estuaries Week (September 16-23), bring much-needed attention to the cleanliness of our Bay, coastline, and waterways. But, often overlooked and not often discussed, is where the vast majority of this trash begins its journey to the Bay. When we look for answers we need to look further inland to one of the greatest sources of Bay trash… our city streets.

Trash is a daily and persistent threat to the health of our communities and neighborhoods. Illegal dumping creates chronic blight in many of our region’s neighborhoods, and city departments are struggling to respond in a timely manner. Homeless encampments lack access to trash bins, resulting in unsanitary and often dangerous living conditions. Trash is deliberately thrown on the ground and accidentally blows out of cars, garbage trucks, and trash bins.

The sources of trash are numerous, but the Bay is often the ultimate destination. Our streets are connected to the Bay through our storm drain system. In most places in the Bay Area, the grates you see next to the curb allow water and pollution to flow freely through a system of pipes that empty into creeks, rivers, and the Bay. Since stormwater does not flow to a treatment plant, all of the trash flowing through this system ultimately ends up in the environment.

Save The Bay has been working for almost a decade to keep trash out of the Bay, including advocating for regulations that require zero trash in city storm drains by 2022. Since most trash starts in our cities, our city leaders and local agencies must play a role in the solution.

The road to zero trash in the Bay is a tough one, but we are already seeing the positive impacts of our advocacy. In July, Save The Bay partnered with Oakland Community Organizations to advocate for additional funding in the city budget to prevent and respond to illegal dumping, a chronic problem that primarily impacts some of Oakland’s most underserved areas. Following pressure from Save The Bay, local and regional organizations, and the community, the city council adopted a budget that not only includes an additional $150,000 to address illegal dumping but also $1.6 million to place port-a-potties and clean trash from homeless encampments. The city also committed to installing trash screens in storm drains as a part of transportation projects.

This victory is only the beginning for our Zero Trash campaign. Like Oakland, cities and counties throughout the Bay Area need to secure additional funding to keep trash out of our neighborhoods and the Bay. Save The Bay is committed to advocating throughout the region to make the 2022 zero trash requirement a reality, and we hope you’ll join us by making a personal promise to reduce your trash footprint:

Four Simple Ways Your Can Reduce Your Trash Footprint!

 Thanks for all you do to help keep our Bay, coastline, and waterways, clean and healthy for all life. Stay tuned for opportunities to advocate for zero trash in your city.

Lessons from Coastal Cleanup Day 2015

Coastal Cleanup Day Volunteers
Coastal Cleanup Day volunteers pick up trash along the MLK Shoreline in Oakland.

Every year, the third Saturday of September is set aside as Coastal Cleanup Day. Observed internationally, this is a day when many people from all over the globe participate in removing waste from our coastlines and waterways. An astonishing amount of trash is removed from creeks, beaches, sloughs and bays. The Ocean Conservancy reports that 560,000 volunteers in 91 countries picked up more than 16 million pounds of trash on Coastal Cleanup Day 2014! This year’s event reiterated, in my mind, the need to address pollution at the source.

I am proud to share that on September 19th, over 100 Save The Bay volunteers cleaned up nearly 1 mile of land bordering waterways in Oakland and San Jose, and removed 1,600 pounds of trash. Most of these items include fast foodware, one-time use products, and tobacco litter. This trash travels down storm drains that directly connect city and suburban streets to our beloved San Francisco Bay, allowing trash and unseen pollutants to enter the Bay unfiltered and untreated.

Although Save The Bay leads many wetland restoration programs year-round, Coastal Cleanup Day is by far my favorite day of the year, albeit a day of disheartening and discouraging feelings. I often hear volunteers say “I can’t believe this” or “This is so depressing”, and that feeling resonates with me most. The hundreds of food wrappers, straws, cigar tips, toys, and Styrofoam pieces found in a 3-foot radius around you can make trash cleanup feel overwhelming, but that can be a good thing.

This new-found perspective on just how much trash ends up in our waterways often motivates change. I encourage volunteers to take note of items we find on the shoreline and draw connections to things we all use in everyday life. Straws? No, thank you. Coffee cups and lids, complete with a sleeve? Bring your own mug and you’ll cut down on three pieces of waste in one purchase. The more we make these everyday changes and replace one-time use items with reusable options, the more impact we’ll each have on reducing pollution and waste. Lastly, make sure that the trash we do produce ends up in the proper receptacles, so we can recycle salvageable items and ensure that trash will not enter our waterways.

Check out the top ten items collected in California on Coastal Cleanup Day. Which do you use? How will you prevent pollution? Join Save The Bay and pledge to keep trash from flowing into San Francisco Bay before we need to clean it up.

Coastal Cleanup Day 2014

Students clean up MLK Jr Shoreline on Coastal Cleanup Day.

Save The Bay marked the 30th annual International Coastal Cleanup Day on Saturday with volunteer cleanups in Oakland and San Jose. In Oakland, 100 volunteers picked up 750 pounds of trash along the Martin Luther King Jr Shoreline. The 30 volunteers that joined cleanup efforts along Coyote Creek in San Jose picked up 600 pounds of trash, including several heavy items such as tires, a grocery cart, and a microwave.

We were joined at both sites by REI, which presented a $25,000 grant to support our Habitat Restoration work. Volunteers enjoyed free t-shirts and water bottles from REI, as well as food and coffee donated by Safeway, Trader Joe’s, and Starbucks.

Coastal Cleanup Day is a great opportunity for local residents to witness the impact of toxic trash on our region. Not only do you get to help clean up our creeks and our Bay shoreline, but you can see just how difficult it can be to remove trash once it enters our waterways. That’s why Save The Bay continues to work with local governments to pass strong policies to stop toxic trash at the source.

Want to learn more about the most collected litter item? Check out our interactive map of some of the worst cigarette butt litter hot spots, based on data collected at Coastal Cleanup Day 2013.

Thanks to all of the volunteers who joined us on Saturday! Check out these photos from Coastal Cleanup Day 2014.

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:

Stormwater is the Largest Source of Bay Pollution

Storm drain clogged with trash and debris.
Storm drain clogged with trash and debris.
Photo Credit: Mike Dillon.

Storm drains prevent flooding by draining excess water out of our neighborhoods, streets, and highways and carrying the water through pipes and culverts to nearby creeks that lead to the Bay.

Unfortunately, a lot more than just clean rain water flows to the Bay through our storm drains.  Last week a clogged plastic sewer pipe in Sausalito caused more than 50,000 gallons of raw sewage to spill into San Francisco Bay.  The sewage ran across the sidewalk, into a gutter, and down a storm drain that leads to the Bay 40 feet away.

While incidents like this happen from time to time and generate coverage in the news, storm drains carry toxic pollutants and trash into the Bay literally every time water flows through them.


The recently released “Pulse of the Bay” report found chemicals like pesticides, insecticides, and flame retardants in San Francisco Bay at levels that could pose hazards to aquatic life.

Pollutants enter the Bay through a variety of sources, including wastewater treatment plants, factories, and agriculture.  But according to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, stormwater is now the largest source of surface water pollution to Bay area waters.

Much of this pollution comes from our streets.  Cars discharge harmful metal particles like lead, zinc, and copper, and leak more oil into the Bay each year than the Cosco Busan oil spill did in 2007. Even the streets themselves contribute directly to the pollution problem.  Asphalt is held together with “recycled” petroleum products and waste from refineries, byproducts that would otherwise require safe disposal.  These toxic substances and the sealants used to coat paved surfaces leach into our waterways over time.


At this year’s annual Coastal Cleanup Day on September 21st, volunteers got to see first-hand how trash enters the Bay through our storm drains and creeks.  First Flush, the first big rain of the season, washed trash from the streets right into the creeks and wetlands we were cleaning up.

Some streets and highways are so full of litter that storm drains become clogged with trash and other debris, resulting in flooding.  Caltrans spends $50 million each year picking up litter on the streets, and has invested more than $5 million in the last five years to improve drainage on Highway 101 and I-80.

Plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers are some of the biggest offenders, which is why we’ve prioritized plastic bag and Styrofoam bans throughout the region over the past several years.  Recently we’ve turned our attention to the nearly 3 billion cigarette butts littered in the Bay area each year.  We’re investigating the best local policy options to address the largest single source of litter in the Bay area.  In the meantime, we’re also calling on tobacco companies to take responsibility for the toxic litter they produce.  Sign our petition to tell tobacco companies – Keep you butts out of our Bay!

Learn more about water pollutants and how you can help keep our Bay clean and healthy.