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!

Weekly roundup: January 10, 2014

Check out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay

7X7 1/4/14
The ultimate Sunday hike: The Albany bulb
Urban wasteland or artistic expression? Visit the Albany Waterfront Trail (aka the Albany Bulb) and decide for yourself. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a unique and eclectic place for exploration, contemplation and human observation. It’s also a great place to walk your dog and experience some of the most fabulous water-level views to be had in the Bay Area.
Read more>>

weekly roundup

San Francisco Chronicle 1/5/14
Appeals court upholds S.F. plastic bag ban as precedent
In the latest legal setback for plastic-bag makers, a state appeals court has issued a ruling upholding San Francisco’s ban on single-use plastic bags as a precedent for future cases.
Read more>>

San Jose Mercury News 1/6/14
Made up names doom San Jose ballot measure to overturn Styrofoam ban
The contentious drive to overturn San Jose’s ban on Styrofoam containers has failed after elections officials found more than half the signatures gathered to place the issue before voters were bogus — and many were just made up.
Read more>>

San Jose Mercury News 1/7/14
Editorial: Polystyrene foam ban stands in San Jose. Yay!
It’s tempting to lose faith in democracy when it seems like money is the only thing that talks. Then something happens — like the failure of the sleazy attempt to repeal San Jose’s ban on polystyrene foam food containers — that restores some faith in the system.
Read more>>

San Francisco Chronicle 1/9/14
They’re back – the Bay’s herring hordes return
Sea lions, porpoises and tens of thousands of birds are jockeying for position with fishermen this week as the annual herring run splashes into San Francisco Bay, a spectacular marine wildlife showcase that conservationists say is one of the largest in North America.
Read more>>

The Almanac 1/7/14
Can we rise to the challenge of rising sea levels?
Imagine a darkened bedroom around midnight. You’re lying there in the silence waiting for sleep to come. From the direction of the closet comes a soft scuffling noise. Curious and maybe a bit alarmed, you sit up, but carefully; you don’t want to draw attention to your presence. Holding your breath, you wait, your head at a slight angle, the better to hear whatever it is.
Read more>>

San Francisco Chronicle 1/9/14
Six Flags mommy dolphin practices baby whistle
Dolphins are known for their exquisite communication skills, but a late-term, pregnant dolphin at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo may be one of the first discovered vocalizing to her unborn baby.
Bella, a 9-year-old bottlenose, caused a double-take among her trainers a few months ago when they discovered her alone in a pool vocalizing her “baby whistle” – an individual sound that every mother dolphin uses to call her calf immediately after birth.
Read more>>

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.  

Foam Industry Spreads Misinformation, Lobbies Against San Jose Ban

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers clog San Jose storm drains.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers removed from San Jose storm drains.

San Jose is scheduled to vote on an ordinance to ban expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers on August 27th. A ban on this product, commonly known as Styrofoam, will reduce water pollution, protect native wildlife, and help San Jose achieve its trash and waste reduction goals.

Yet manufacturers and distributers of EPS are misleading San Jose officials about the recyclability of EPS and engaging in other questionable tactics to try to derail the ban. During a February 2013 City Council meeting in San Jose, representatives from two different Southern California recyclers, Apex Recycling and NEPCO, claimed they’d be willing to purchase and recycle San Jose’s food-soiled EPS. Yet San Jose staff could find no record of these (or any) companies purchasing soiled EPS from the Los Angeles area.

NEPCO is listed as a Korean Company that manufactures recycling machinery, recycles EPS, and sells products made of recycled foam in Chino, CA. A search for information on Apex Recycling was less successful – failing to return an email address or website. The address Apex’s representative provided led to a residential street in Chino Hills, CA with no corresponding house number.

Reina Pereira, of the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, is not aware of any companies seeking to purchase food soiled EPS in the Los Angeles area. San Jose staff spoke with several Southern California materials recovery facilities who said they have never found a recycler to take food soiled EPS off their hands.

Dart Container, a Michigan-based EPS manufacturer, also showed up to testify before the City Council. Dart Container claims that sixty-five communities across California successfully recycle EPS every day. However, recyclers in Redondo Beach, Covina, Riverside, Los Angeles, and Long Beach – all of which, according to Dart, recycle EPS – confirmed that food soiled EPS is handled as trash by the recycling facility and is landfilled.

Representatives from Matrix Manufacturing were also at the February city council meeting. Matrix is a Utah-based company that manufactures equipment that recycles EPS into logs of low-grade plastic. Matrix does not itself recycle EPS, but sells its equipment to materials recovery facilities like Potential Industries in Southern California. According to Manager Ted Smith, Potential Industries does not process food soiled EPS, but will occasionally compress large, clean pieces of “pre-consumer” EPS, such as packaging foam. Smith says that recycled EPS is difficult to market, has very little value, and concludes that it is simply not economical to produce this form of plastic.

Not much information is available on Matrix Manufacturing either – a search failed to return a website or email address for the company. Sites including Superpages, Manta, and Yelp variously categorized Matrix as a welding company, and linked to nonexistent sites or unrelated companies.

Despite what companies like Dart and Matrix say, municipalities throughout the U.S. have found that recycling EPS food containers is not economical. In a support letter to the San Jose City Council, Mayor Bloomberg, of New York City, stated that EPS food packaging “has no value to the City’s recycling vendors” and costs taxpayers $2 million annually to landfill.

Even if companies like Apex and NEPCO were somehow ready and willing to buy San Jose’s soiled EPS (despite the fact that they don’t buy it in their own backyards), we checked with dozens of municipalities on the feasibility of recycling food-soiled EPS and all agree with Kerrie Romanow, the Director of Environmental Services for San Jose, who reported:

“It is currently not possible to recycle food contaminated EPS service ware profitably in San Jose. Soiled EPS foam food service ware is difficult and costly to clean due to the absorbing nature of the material . . . Even when food contaminated EPS is successfully collected, there are few to no manufacturing facilities, either domestic or abroad, willing to remanufacture it into new products due to the contamination.”

The bottom line is, though residents may place soiled EPS in curbside recycling bins, nobody recycles it, so it gets sent straight to landfill, if it makes it that far.

These ubiquitous containers are lightweight and often blow out of trash cans, garbage trucks, and trash facilities. When they enter the environment, they break down into tiny toxic pieces that never biodegrade, choke our waterways, kill wildlife, and make their way out into the ocean. They are difficult and costly for cities to clean up.

San Jose deserves better. The Bay deserves better. The San Jose City Council and the people of San Jose are too smart to be taken in by false assertions from industry lobbyists whose companies don’t even do business in the Bay Area.

Big Wins for a Cleaner Bay in San Jose and on the Peninsula

Thanks to the San Jose City Council, brighter days are ahead for Coyote Creek, which flows more than 60 miles to the Bay. (Photo by Dawn Ellner)
Thanks to the San Jose City Council, brighter days are ahead for Coyote Creek, which flows more than 60 miles to the Bay. (Photo by Dawn Ellner)

Yesterday was an exciting day for Save The Bay’s multi-year efforts to rid the Bay of trash. San Jose’s City Council voted 9-2 to move forward with an ordinance to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam) food ware. Once implemented, San Jose will be the largest city in the country to ban this creek-clogging, wildlife-choking product!

Two years in the making, this is a big win for the Bay and especially San Jose’s Styrofoam-clogged Coyote Creek. Running more than 60 miles from the Diablo Range, through Morgan Hill and San Jose down to the Bay, Coyote Creek is one of the few remaining homes for threatened steelhead and salmon in the South Bay. The trash pollution situation had gotten so bad that the Creek was listed by regulatory agencies as a “303(d) impaired waterway” in violation of the Clean Water Act. We expect the city’s ban on polystyrene, like its recent ban on plastic bags, will have a significant positive impact on the health of both Coyote Creek and San Francisco Bay.

If the win in San Jose wasn’t already enough, the Peninsula city of San Carlos voted 4-1 on Monday night to join the regional movement to ban plastic bags! Once the city’s ban is implemented on July 1, San Carlos will join over a dozen other cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in banning this common litter item from the shores of our Bay. Its neighbor, Redwood City, will be voting on banning bags on March 11.

Over 50% of Bay Area residents now live in areas that are covered by plastic bag bans, and more than 30% of jurisdictions have bans on polystyrene. We’re going to keep working hard to ban these destructive single-use products until we stop finding them clogging our creeks, littering our shoreline and harming Bay wildlife.

Want to hear about important wins and opportunities to make the Bay cleaner in your city? Make sure you are signed up for our BaySaver Action Alerts!