5 New Year’s Resolutions to Reduce Pollution in The San Francisco Bay


It’s that time of year again when change is in the air, and most people think about changing just one little habit—one tiny habit or aspiration that they promise themselves to fulfill within the brand new year. Yes, I’m talking about New Year’s resolutions!

Did you know that people didn’t start making New Year’s resolutions about appearances, health, jobs, and the like until the 20th century? Before the Great Depression New Year’s resolutions revolved around chivalry, morality, and gratitude for a new year. Here are some New Year’s resolutions ideas to show your gratitude and kindness toward the Bay and your neighbors (including wildlife):

1. Sort your garbage. Many Bay Area residents do not know how to sort their garbage (even I get confused—what do you do with small amounts of cooking oil?). However, in San Francisco there was a mandatory recycling and compost ordinance  passed in 2009 to comply with the city’s goal of zero waste by 2020.  Creating a zero waste system causes a cascading effect in the Bay Area. If there is less garbage, there is less energy being used, less energy means less resources being used, and you get the point. Here in the Bay Area it is a privilege to have garbage, recycling, and compost services at your front door. If you don’t already have this service you can get it provided to you by Recology.

To begin your journey to zero waste, educate yourself about what can and cannot by recycled or composted [hint:  #1. Look on the package they usually say if it can be recycled #2. If plastic has a 1 or 2 on the bottom it is 100% recyclable, you might even be able to save it for the California Redemption Value (CRV)]. To make sorting easier, pre-sort your items by creating separate bins out of milk crates and/or buckets and labeling them with appropriate disposable items. This might seem like a big task, but once you become familiar with your personalized system it’s a breeze.

 2. Carry your own reusable bag. I will admit this can be a tricky one. If you aren’t already in the habit of bringing your own bag to the store it can be tough to transition. Have no fear, there are ways to remember to bring your bag every single time.

– Keep 2-3 in your car

– Place the bags by the door as a reminder to return them to your car

– Keep one on your keychain

– Put one in your backpack, purse, or pocket

– Write it on your grocery list as a reminder to bring it

3. Switch cleaning, beauty and other household products. I won’t list all of the chemicals that can be found in household products such as laundry detergent, noxious bathroom cleansers, toothpaste, face creams and washes, but apparently some companies won’t either. Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have any regulations on most beauty products (meaning companies can put whatever they want in it). These chemicals wash down our drains and into the Bay. For more information on what effects these contaminants have on the Bay, check out our blog post here.

4. Quit smoking. Save the Bay’s Butt Free Bay campaign took off last year creating awareness in cities such as El Cerrito, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Mateo.  Littered cigarette butts plague Bay Area waters by releasing toxins from their non-biodegradable filters.  They harm wildlife and can even cause children that are playing in public parks to become ill if ingested. Even cigarette butts that are “properly” disposed of end up in landfills. There are many steps that can be taken to stop smoking, find one that works for you. Smokefree.gov has an awesome program that sends you advice and encouragement via text message.  Even better, have a friend or family member text you.  It’s a New Year! Stop smoking, get healthy, and create a healthier Bay.

 5. Purchase a water filter and non-BPA reusable water bottle. Bottled water is convenient, but they are not always as fresh and clean as companies claim them to be (nor is it bottled from the source), and the plastic bottles end up in landfills or recycle bins and never biodegrade.  There are some potential contaminants that can end up in bottled water. There are also potential contaminants in tap water. The best way to have fresh water at your fingertips is to purchase a water filter and fill up a liter sized non-BPA reusable water bottle.

Notes from the Front Lines of the New War on Smoking

East Bay Express Smoking Cigarette Butts Save The Bay Pollution Prevention Awareness
A shot of the cover of the East Bay Express’s “New Warn On Smoking” article.

Last month, the East Bay Express published an enlightening and comprehensive article summarizing the impact tobacco waste has on the Bay Area’s residents and wildlife. A little over a year ago, Save the Bay launched the Butt Free Bay campaign to reduce cigarette butt pollution in the Bay.  Allison Chan, Save The Bay’s Clean Bay Campaign Manager, states in the article “Cigarette butts are not like every other type of litter. They are toxic.” This short and sweet statement speaks volumes about just how bad tobacco and its byproducts are.

As the article notes, “They [Save the Bay] face an uphill fight. The plastic bag industry spent millions on its failed effort to defeat a state ban, and Big Tobacco can be expected to unleash an even larger torrent of money to combat those who would limit its profits.” That’s why Save The Bay will keep working to enact local outdoor smoking ordinances, as well as educate local residents about the importance of where we put our butts (no pun intended).

Volunteer Spotlight | Marivel Mendoza

Marivel Mendoza with her daughter and baby boy at Eden Landing.

The first time we met Marivel Mendoza, a student from Oakland, CA, she had her young son strapped to her back and her daughter at her side as she helped install native plants at Eden Landing. Since then she’s brought her two nephews out to a restoration program at Bair Island. It’s thanks to volunteers like Marivel that we are able to be so successful in our restoration efforts.

How many times have you volunteered at Save the Bay?

2 times

How did you get involved with Save the Bay?

Through professor Nelson’s Class at Berkeley City College (BCC). He’s the best!

What is the best thing about volunteering for Save the Bay?

Helping my community

What is your favorite thing about the San Francisco Bay Area?

Everything! The people, the scenery, awesome organizations like this that want to restore our original landscape.

What is your first fondest memory of San Francisco Bay?

Walking as a child at the San Leandro Marina with my mom. I have memories of going there since I was a baby with my whole family rain or shine and enjoying the breeze, seeing the wildlife (like the many types of birds).

2,635 Pieces of Tiny Toxic Trash in San Mateo

An empty pack of cigarettes and cigarette butts found near a creek in San Mateo

Growing up in the Bay Area, I never gave a second thought to cigarette butts. I definitely saw them on the ground, at festivals—everywhere really. They were just a part of the urban landscape. I never contemplated cigarette butts being a problem, because I’m not a cigarette smoker. Drug Free programs at school taught me about why the actual act of smoking cigarettes is bad. I even got to see and feel a real healthy lung compared to a lung belonging to a life-long smoker—believe me I’m scarred.

However, I never received the message about the toxicity of cigarette waste until now.  Something I didn’t know is the “cotton” filter we think helps reduce toxins from the cigarette is not actually cotton, but plastic (cellulose acetate)—nor does it work.  The plastic filters from butts do not biodegrade. Instead, they end up in storm drains that eventually flow into our waterways and bay.

Cigarette butts are the number one form of litter found on International Coastal Cleanup Day worldwide. Toxins from the cigarettes leach into the water, poisoning fish, birds, and other wildlife. According to the American Lung Association in California (ALA), adopting tobacco control laws in the Bay Area and other major cities can help reduce a significant amount of cigarette pollution in California. This is one of the reasons we targeted the City of San Mateo to conduct cigarette butt surveys. San Mateo has one of the lowest grades for outdoor smoking ordinances according to the ALA 2014 Tobacco Control Report.

Earlier this month, a team from Save the Bay took to the streets of San Mateo to collect cigarette butts.   We broke up into 3 pairs to survey 15 locations with the highest potential for smokers: recreational areas, sidewalks, bus stops, and shopping centers.

Allison Chan, Save the Bay’s Clean Bay Campaign manager, and I began our journey at the Borel Square shopping center.  We immediately sparked people’s curiosity by wearing gloves, masks, and skeptical faces while looking at the ground. “Did you guys lose something?” a man asked as he entered 24 Hour Fitness. “No, we are doing a survey for cigarette butts,” I said. “Oh! There are so many of them around my neighborhood in San Carlos it’s disgusting, thank you so much and good luck,” he replied.  This was one of the many positive reactions we received while informing people about the study.  One surprising reaction was from a man who became so paranoid that he frantically started picking up cigarette butts in front of his business. We tried to tell him that we were doing a survey, so he didn’t need to pick them up, but we couldn’t understand each other due to a language barrier. He eventually stopped and retreated into his business taking the cigarette butts with him. There’s no way to know how many cigarette butts he picked up, which is bad news for our litter survey. Too bad more people aren’t motivated to pick up their butts.

After 3 hours and 6 people surveying throughout San Mateo we received astonishing results. We collected 2,635 cigarette butts! The greatest amount of cigarette butts, which was 912, was collected from recreational areas (parks and trails). The most mind-blowing result of them all was the 500 cigarette butts found at one bus stop. In a nutshell, this survey shined a bright light on an even bigger problem throughout the San Francisco Bay.

Surveying San Mateo for cigarette butts completely changed my perspective on cigarettes. I always knew they were bad, but now I know that it is a problem that affects everyone — not just smokers themselves. We all appreciate living near the water, so why pollute it? Although cigarettes are small and seem like a back drop to what we see every day, collectively they pose a huge environmental problem. Click here to tell your city to adopt an outdoor smoking ban and create a butt free bay.

Mercury and the San Francisco Bay

Caution sign found along the San Francisco Bay showing fish to eat and not to eat.
Caution sign found along the San Francisco Bay showing fish to eat and not to eat.

The San Francisco Bay has an extensive history of mercury contamination dating back to the Gold Rush era.  During the Gold Rush, miners extracted gold ores from the earth using mercury. These deserted gold mines were never properly cleaned up, causing current contamination in the major tributaries (American, Yuba, Bear, and Feather River) of the Sacramento Delta, which flows into the San Francisco Bay.

What is Mercury? 

Mercury (Hg) is an element that is considered a heavy metal. Mercury is the only metal that forms into a liquid at room temperature. It has a silver appearance, but can evaporate into a colorless and odorless vapor.  Although mercury occurs naturally it is toxic to humans and animals.

Today, sources of mercury are located in our household items including but not limited to thermometers and some batteries. Mercury also occurs from the burning of fossil fuel and refining natural gas.

How does Mercury affect wildlife and the San Francisco Bay?

Earth naturally contains small amounts of mercury, but when it is extracted and water resources are susceptible it becomes hazardous. Once mercury enters waterways, it transforms into toxic methylmercury. As it works its way up the food chain, methylmercury becomes increasingly concentrated in a process known as bioaccumulation. Bigger fish have more methylmercury, because they feed on more fish containing the harmful substance. This is why humans and wildlife whose diets consist of mostly fish are more likely to have adverse effects from mercury. Some of the ways mercury affects humans and wildlife are:

  • Birth defects that disrupt development of the brain and nervous system.
  • Impaired cognitive thinking and motor skills in humans.
  • Reduced reproductive success in wildlife (mainly fish and birds). Like humans, wildlife also experiences muscle weakness and loss of coordination. These symptoms reduce their chances of finding prey, a mate, and escape routes.

There are several ways you can reduce exposure to mercury and prevent accidental contamination of wildlife habitat.

  1. Avoid buying products with mercury and properly dispose of any mercury thermometers, batteries, fluorescent bulbs, and electronics by taking it to your local household hazardous waste facility.
  2. Educate yourself about the health of the San Francisco Bay to avoid contaminated water, and catch the right fish for your gender and age group.
  3. Educate yourself about the safest fish to eat. Use the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide. You can even download the app!
  4. Think green! Take public transportation, walk, or bike to reduce production of natural gas and fossil fuels, and support mercury reduction campaigns.