What a Waste: Trash and Your Taxes


Trash is an ugly topic. It’s rarely discussed, and many people find it all too easy to ignore. It’s become commonplace in our cities, and littering, especially cigarette butts, is almost second nature to some Bay Area folks. Trash in the bay is a huge problem, but it is a compilation of hundreds of thousands of tiny parts: food wrappers tossed out of a car window, plastic bags blown out of a garbage can, cigarette butts that fall into a storm drain. We are all responsible for small amounts of trash generation, small amounts that add up to a large problem – and we are all paying for it. Literally.

As Bay Area tax payers, we are all paying into city wide budgets for trash management, and our mess is not cheap. California cities spend millions of dollars annually on trash alone, and in the National Resource Defense Council’s 2013 report, they found that the state spends about half a billion dollars each year to “combat and clean up litter and to prevent it from ending up in the state’s rivers, lakes canals, and oceans.” In this report, NRDC collected data from California communities regarding six areas of trash management activities, and further concluded that the average community annually spends:

  • $133,958 on waterway cleanups
  • $524,388 on street sweeping
  • $212,595 on stormwater capture device
  • $249,238 on storm drain maintenance
  • $197,003 on manual cleanup expenditures
  • $73,928 on public education

That’s a grand total of $1,391,110 spent by the average community annually on litter alone. Unfortunately , the NRDC’s calculations probably fall short of the actual statewide costs; because loss of tourism due to trash, loss of industry, costs incurred at the county and state level, and costs associated with recycling, landfill, and waste management were not included in the study, trash-related expenditure for California are likely much higher.

In the Bay Area, the Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit already in place requires cities to reach zero trash flowing into San Francisco Bay by 2022. Zero Trash may sound like a lofty goal, but it comes with huge savings, both environmentally and economically. The cheapest, and most comprehensive, method of trash reduction comes from source control. Why spend the time and the money removing trash from the environment when we can prevent it from entering in the first place? Save The Bay has worked closely on source control campaigns in the past for some of the most persistent and pervasive trash items: plastic bags and styrofoam containers. We’ve had huge success with these litter sources, and single-use bags are now banned in 80% of the Bay Area. We are now turning our attention to a new trash source, the biggest and baddest in the bay area: cigarette butts.

Cigarette litter is plastic and toxic, but beyond that, it is everywhere. Cigarette butts are consistently the top litter item collected every coastal cleanup day, with an estimated 3 billion butts littered in the Bay Area annually, making cigarette litter extremely costly for cities. The city of San Francisco documented costs of close to $6 million a year on cigarette litter alone.

We are wasting our money on waste, and the solution is simple. Ordinances that ban outdoor smoking reduce a major source of litter by keeping cigarette butts out of our streets and storm drains, just as ordinances have done with other trash sources in the past. Call on your city to pass an outdoor smoking ban, and keep butts out of local waterways and your taxes.

Our communities deserve a million dollar bonus; our trash doesn’t. By cleaning up our act and reducing our litter, we can spend that money on education, parks, services for seniors and the differently abled, community events, and more. Reduce, reuse, and recycle – your  Bay and your community will thank you.