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.

5 thoughts on “The State of Trash in the Bay: Our 2016 Report

  1. Wonderful news, but I live & work in San Mateo and there is an obvious area of improvement. Railroad Avenue north of 1st Avenue runs right next to the CalTrain platform. San Mateo Creek is just north of the platform. The amount of trash I see in the street on a daily basis is appalling. The platform itself is very clean, but that’s because the trash dropped by people waiting for the train just falls on the street. Cigarette smokers stand on the corner at 1st Avenue and the butts get washed down the gutter into the creek. I won’t even mention the human and pet waste I have encountered. Anyway, I applaud the improvement. We can do better.

  2. Hello.

    Thanks for a good article. I lived 3 decades in the Oakland hills and am now in the flatlands. My former street was cleaned TWICE in 30 years. Once at my request, once by another. (I worked at home.) Down in the flatlands the city rep. told me “we don’t have trash cans because then people put their household trash in them”. Here too I pick up but I’m unable to do so very well anymore. My street here is swept 2x a week and still is full of litter. We have a bus stop on the corner, are near a major BART station, a hospital and a school. Everyone litters or so it seems. There’s not a single trash can on the entire length of the street.

    I used to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan long ago. Part of one’s regular taxes included trash pickup for every residential location. This got rid of the more city like litter as it didn’t matter whether you put it in your own container or one of the city supplied street pedestrian containers. Litter was more along the highways without pedestrians.

    Ridding us of constant street litter going to the ocean makes having street containers worth considering. I know I’d be glad to have a pedestrian container on my block if taxed for it. $5. a month? Sure!

    Thanks for your time and attention.

  3. I’m curious as to why San Francisco proper and none of the municipalities in Marin and Sonoma counties appear to be excluded from this map/survey.

  4. I live near San Francisquito Creek, which is the boundary between Menlo Park and Palo Alto. In summer, the creek is dry. I spend time in the summer to gather trash from the creek: bottles, cans, plastic bags, cigarettes, clothing, food containers etc. I can fill 3 large shopping bags (sorted into recyclables and trash) within 20 minutes. I know that the problem requires much more than what I am doing, but I hope I can enlist others to engage.

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