Deskside with David | Local Efforts Yield Regional Impact on Bay Trash

In 2010 Save The Bay estimated that about 1 million plastic bags were entering San Francisco Bay every year, from all nine counties that touch the Bay. Plastic bags choke our wetlands, smother wildlife, and flow out into the ocean where they become part of a global epidemic of plastic trash. Our region needed an effective strategy to stop the trash at its source, so we began working on local ordinances to prevent plastic-bag pollution. But regional problem-solving among 100 widely distributed city governments is rare. In fact, we weren’t sure how successful our approach would be or if it would scale up.

San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier, Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis, and San Mateo County Supervisor Carole Groom
San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier, Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis, and San Mateo County Supervisor Carole Groom

Now, less than three years later, more than 65 percent of Bay Area residents live in a community that has banned plastic bags, thanks to dozens of cities Save The Bay helped.

Plastic trash and marine debris from storm water is a statewide and international problem, but we knew that leading a legislative campaign in Sacramento or Washington, DC would not be the best strategy for a regional nonprofit like Save The Bay. The American Chemistry Association and powerful plastics industry groups have paid lobbyists swarming the Capitols and buying influence with campaign contributions. Our strength comes from 40,000 members and supporters here in the Bay Area and from our credibility with local city and county government leaders and staff.

Diving into the bag-ban fight, we had an actual example on which to build: San Francisco’s first-in-the-nation local ordinance banning single-use plastic bags at some grocery stores in 2007. To jumpstart a regional campaign, we needed a big win on a complete ban of plastic bags in a city that could withstand pressure and litigation threats from the plastic bag lobby. And we wanted a key ally from the business community to broaden the constituency for reducing bags.

Save The Bay cultivated relationships with council members and staff in San Jose, the Bay Area’s largest city, and we worked together for nearly two years to develop and enact an ordinance banning distribution of all single-use plastic bags and requiring stores to charge for paper bags. We found an industry ally in the California Grocers Association, which wanted consistent bag rules for their stores and customers. The grocers backed our comprehensive ordinance as a smart, uniform approach that cities region-wide should adopt.

Despite lobbying and threats from the plastic industry, the San Jose City Council adopted a ban in December 2010 and implemented it in January 2012.  In the first 18 months that San Jose stores were plastic-bag-free, the city estimates that plastic bag trash dropped by 69 percent in local creeks and 89 percent in the city’s trash catchment devices. And as we hoped, San Jose’s success prompted other cities and counties to implement similar ordinances. San Francisco expanded its bag ban in 2012, and Alameda County cities also imposed a ban. Then this movement spread to the Peninsula, where Save The Bay helped San Mateo County create an ordinance that cities could opt into very easily and economically, without each conducting a separate environmental impact process. San Mateo’s novel effort even included some cities from neighboring Santa Clara County.

Our regional strategy is working to reduce plastic debris in our communities. Once pervasive in trees, gutters, creeks, and Bay marshes, discarded plastic bags are now less common in cities with bans. New regulations require Bay Area cities to reduce trash entering the bay from storm water by 40 percent by 2014, and eliminate all trash from storm water by 2022. Plastic-bag bans will help cities meet these requirements.

While most plastic bags are now banned locally from Santa Cruz to Marin County, the American Chemistry Council has again blocked passage of a state bill to ban plastic bags throughout California. But the momentum of local bans continues, and now many cities are taking steps against Styrofoam and other components of Bay trash. They’ve learned that by working together they can create scalable solutions that improve the environment for wildlife and people.