Our Chance to Uphold California’s Bag Ban


In 2014 something incredible happened: Californian legislators, environmentalists, community groups, labor unions, and business groups all came together to pass a piece of environmental legislation to ban single use plastic shopping bags. Unfortunately the state law, SB 270, which would have prohibited all grocery stores in California from giving away the often littered, unrecyclable plastic bags, never got the chance to be effective. The out-of-state plastics manufacturers who opposed it spent over 7 million dollars to keep it from ever being implemented. They have tried to stop the ban from taking effect for years, but this November, Californians will have the chance to vote yes to uphold this first-of-its-kind legislation in order to reduce plastic trash throughout California and prevent out-of-state industry from setting state policy in our state.

How did we end up here?

We should have had a state wide bag ban for nearly a year now–SB 270 was passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor Brown in 2014 and was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2015. Though there had been previous attempts to ban bags at the state level, the 2014 law passed largely because of the example set by highly successful bag bans here in the Bay Area and stronger legislative leadership. The 2014 bag ban had the support of lawmakers from all around the state including every Bay Area Legislator, but wealthy plastics manufacturers from out of state spent millions of dollars to collect signatures for a referendum. Once the plastics industry’s referendum qualified in early 2015, implementation of the bag ban was put on hold.

So even though a statewide bag ban was supported by cities and organizations throughout California, passed by the legislature, and signed by Governor Brown, there are still plastic bags being handed out – ready to blow or float into our waterways and ocean – at stores all around the state.

Local bans paved the way for statewide action

Over 80% of Bay Area residents live in a city or county that has banned plastic bags. Cities across the Bay Area have reported that bag bans are a highly effective way to prevent this plastic trash from entering our environment and endangering fish and wildlife. We know how important bag bans are, which is why it is vital that we all vote YES in November to uphold the bag ban. SB 270 succeeded in the first place, unlike the many bag bills that failed before it, because of political will and popular approval established by the groundbreaking laws here in the Bay Area.

Challenges ahead, but we have the power

To date, out-of-state plastic bag manufacturers have spent over $7 million fighting this law because a statewide ban in California will be a model for the rest of the country. But by blocking our hard-fought policy, bag manufacturers are asking us to pay for the damage done to our environment by their flimsy, throwaway product. We cannot let their greedy interests pollute our waterways and trash our communities. Here are a couple things to keep in mind between now and November, when we will all have a chance to vote YES on the bag ban:

  • The November ballot will be a long one and the bag ban will be somewhere in the middle. Make sure you sign up for our email updates to find out the proposition number once it is assigned and stay updated on opportunities to help support the ban.
  • Don’t be fooled. The plastics industry will continue spending money on misleading information and scare tactics to confuse voters and turn our attention away from what we already know: bag bans are good for the environment and wildlife, and reusable bags are the best alternative.

We know that California voters care deeply about the health of our oceans, bays, waterways and wildlife. We can’t allow state policy to be dictated by out-of-state corporate greed. Stay tuned for more information about the bag ban and how you can get involved, and start talking to friends and family about this important opportunity in November.

Mapping a path to zero trash


Ever since trash was first regulated as a pollutant in the San Francisco Bay in 2009, cities have been trying to eliminate trash from their storm water systems. Now, 6 years into that process, we have gathered some data on their progress and created this map to see what progress towards zero trash looks like around the region.

Every city that is subject to the storm water permit must completely eliminate trash from its storm water by 2022. Cities on this map are shown as dots, the size and color of the dot represent how much progress that city has made towards zero trash. The smaller and greener the dot, the more progress they have made; cities indicated by large red or orange dots have a long way to go. The map represents how far a city has gone to reduce the trash flowing through its storm water system – for example, Oakland has reduced trash by 47% — not the actual amount of trash each city is contributing to the Bay.

You may be wondering why some communities, notably the city of San Francisco and most of the North Bay, are absent from this map. The reason is that those cities are not covered by the storm water permit. Smaller cities like those in the North Bay have a separate permit with a different timeline to reduce trash and San Francisco, unlike the rest of the region, operates a Combined Storm Sewer System where storm water is treated along with sewage.

All of our data is gleaned from reports each city files with the Regional Water Board on their storm water systems. Although these reports are a crucial resource for us, all of the data is entirely self-reported and we do not have a high degree of confidence that detailed on-the-ground observations support the data in all of these reports.  However, for the sake of clarity and ease of assessment, for our map we took the reductions claimed by each city in their storm water reports at face value.

Some cities are making good progress

Some cities that are doing a truly remarkable job are Walnut Creek and Sunnyvale. These cities have taken steps to install storm drain units that filter trash out of the water before it gets into the creeks in most of their very trashy areas.

Oakland faces problems that are unique in the region but has risen to the challenge, more proactively dealing with illegal dumping and increasing street sweeping activities, as well as installing trash capture devices. Another city that has done an impressive job is Richmond, which has a hugely successful block by block neighborhood beautification and cleanup program.

Trash capture units are expensive, and most cities are struggling to find ways to pay for them. But they may be the only way to comply with this permit and eliminate trash from storm water systems that drain directly to the Bay.

Most cities have a long way to go

Many cities that appear in yellow, like Berkeley, Oakland, South San Francisco and Richmond are actually in compliance with the permit, they managed to reduce their trash by 40% by 2014, however because the timeline for reductions is so tight and these cities need to reach a 70% reduction by 2017, there is serious uncertainty about how these cities will be able to keep up with increasing reductions. These cities need to find the resources to clean up more of their trash.

Some cities where we see big problems are Concord, Pittsburg, San Jose, and San Leandro. These cities have not yet made significant advances towards achieving zero trash, and that is a cause for concern. The next benchmark is a 70% reduction by 2017, and these cities have failed to meet the 40% requirement by 2015; they are in very serious danger of failing to meet the mandated standards. The Regional Water Board ought to be working with these cities already to help them avoid non-compliance, and to encourage local leaders to prioritize their storm water pollution.

Why did we make this map?

This map is the best visual representation of the region’s progress towards zero trash.

As I mentioned above, the map shows progress towards zero trash, rather than how much trash each city contributes to the Bay. If we had shown how much trash each city contributes to the bay, the map would show us what we already know – that larger, more urban cities generate more trash.

What we want to show is regional progress; as you can see on the map, the Bay is literally ringed with trash, and it is the responsibility of every city in the region to take the steps necessary to eliminate trash from its storm water system by 2022.

Call on your city to get to zero trash – Click here to take action.

Time to ban smoking in East Bay Parks

UPDATE 4/19/2016: The East Bay Regional Parks District’s Board of Directors finally adopted a smoking ban on Tuesday, April 19. We have been advocating for a comprehensive ban on smoking in the parks since 2014 when our volunteers cleaned a staggering number of cigarette butts from the Martinez Regional Shoreline. While the policy the parks district adopted will prohibit smoking in most areas of the parks, it includes an exemption that will allow smoking to continue at campsites. The Board of Directors included this exemption despite being called upon to adopt a complete ban by a coalition of environmental and public health organizations, including the Alameda Tobacco Control Program and the Alameda County Tobacco Prevention Coalition, and over 300 Save The Bay activists. The board has agreed to reconsider the exemption next year and indicated they may place cigarette disposal receptacles in campgrounds to discourage littering. Save The Bay will continue to advocate for a comprehensive policy that keeps toxic tobacco litter out of our parks and out of the creeks that flow to our Bay until smoking is prohibited in all areas of the parks district.

cigarette butts
3 billion cigarette butts are littered in the Bay Area each year.

In mid-April, the Board of Directors of the East Bay Regional Parks District will vote on an ordinance to ban smoking in all 120,536 acres of the 65 parks in their jurisdiction. This long overdue policy is an important step toward reducing the flow of toxic, plastic cigarette butts into the Bay.

It would seem like a no-brainer to keep cigarettes, with their associated health impacts and wild fire danger, out of parks where people go to seek out health and enjoy nature. Unfortunately, the East Bay Regional Parks has not yet banned smoking even though many cities around the Bay have decided to keep cigarette smoke and cigarette litter out of their recreation areas and parks.

In addition to the fire hazard posed by discarded cigarettes, toxic butts, and littered cartons pollute our creeks and Bay, and second-hand smoke poses unnecessary health hazards to parks visitors. Cigarette butts are a pernicious problem in our open spaces and ordinances like the one the East Bay Parks will consider are one of our best tools for fighting them.

A plastic wolf in the white fuzz of sheep’s clothing

Cigarette butts are not biodegradable. The ubiquitous cigarette filter is made from cellulose acetate – a type of plastic similar to Rayon – and will persist in the environment indefinitely. These plastic fibers were added to cigarettes in the Mad Men era when tobacco companies turned to ever more elaborate measures to fool the public into thinking their products were safe. In fact, these “filters” do nothing to protect smokers from harmful chemicals, but they have remained on the ends of cigarettes, and in our creeks and bay, ever since.

Save The Bay estimates that over 3 billion of these highly toxic butts are littered in the Bay Area each year, threatening water quality and wildlife in the Bay. Once in the creeks, butts leach toxic chemicals including acetic acid, chromium, and arsenic into the water. This soup of chemicals is deadly to fish and marine life even at low concentrations.

Changing Behavior

The most horrible part of the danger cigarette litter poses to our environment is that people do not seem to think of cigarette butts as trash when they litter them. As a result, cigarette butts have been the most commonly found trash on Coastal Cleanup day for the past 20 years.

The scale of the trash problem posed by cigarette butts requires us to change our thinking about smoking. If we de-normalize smoking in public places and call attention to the fact that smoking produces litter, we can begin to change behavior and chip away at the litter problem.

The East Bay Regional Parks District’s parks would not be the first smoke-free parks in the region. Nearly all of the municipalities that border East Bay Regional Parks already have ordinances that restrict smoking in parks and recreation areas. These bans are a simple and effective way to start changing attitudes towards smoking and cigarette litter. A clear and comprehensive ban on smoking in our regional parks will create regional cohesion and further de-normalize outdoor smoking and its harmful effects on the environment.

In order to have an impact, this ordinance needs to be implemented in such a way that it causes people to think twice before smoking in the parks and causes them to think about where their cigarette butts are going. This means clear signage in parking lots, campsites and at trail heads. Additionally, it will require parks staff to work to educate park visitors about the rule, and about the harmful impacts of tobacco litter on the environment. It also means that conscientious park visitors will need to educate others about the rule so people feel a social responsibility to avoid smoking in the parks. The more people stop to think, the more behavior will change and the cleaner our creeks and Bay will be.

The East Bay Regional Parks should be completely smoke-free

This policy will have enormous benefits to the ecosystems within the parks as well as the people who visit and use them, and it makes sense to have policies that protect public and environmental health in areas set aside to respect nature and enjoy the outdoors in a healthy way. In order to make a strong case to the Board of Directors, we have partnered with other environmental advocates and advocates from the public health community, including the American Lung Association, Clean Water Action, and the Alameda County Tobacco Control Coalition.

Last Thursday, we and many other advocates for smoke-free parks went to the EBRP Board’s Operations Committee meeting. The three-member committee heard testimony from environmental and public health advocates calling to prohibit smoking in all parts of our regional parks to prevent exposure to second-hand smoke and cigarette butt litter. They also received a letter signed by half a dozen environmental and public health organizations in addition to separate letters written by the American Lung Association, the City of Berkeley, and the Watershed Project urging them to ban smoking in the parks with no exceptions. On top of all that, 271 Save The Bay supporters sent messages to the committee calling to protect the health of our parks.

The committee voted to ban smoking in all areas of the parks with one major exception: The ordinance will continue to allow smoking at campsites. Their logic is that campsites are already smoky from campfires and so there is no additionally public health threat from tobacco. However, this policy ignores the litter smokers leave behind.

We still have an opportunity to fight for a stronger ordinance. As the full board vote approaches in April, we will need your help to convince the board to adopt the strongest policy possible. Not only do we need a strong ordinance on the books, but we need to see less litter in our parks and in the Bay. Stay tuned for opportunities to make your voice heard.


Harnessing natural systems for a better Bay

Newcomb @ Phelps Streets, catch basins, rain gardens, curbs, permeable pavers, plants, wet weather, bulb outs,
This rain garden in San Francisco helps absorb stormwater and brings more greenery to the corner of Newcomb and Phelps streets. Photo: SFPUC

We are well into a rainy winter here in the Bay Area, and that means a lot of things — flash floods, erosion, and inconvenient bicycle commutes — but it also means pollution. The rain that falls on city streets, sidewalks and parking lots flows to storm drains and into the Bay, picking up pollutants like PCBs and mercury along the way. Additionally, many of our stormwater systems are aging and unable to deal with the heavy flows that come from larger storms. Over the last century we have paved over an ever greater portion of the Bay Area’s landscape. More and more water flows down the storm drain instead of being taken up by plants or filtering into the ground.

Cities around the region are beginning to adopt techniques that mimic the function of natural landscapes to help manage their stormwater loads. These systems are called “green infrastructure” because they use natural processes to move and manage stormwater, as opposed to conventional, gray infrastructure systems, where water is immediately diverted through pipes and drains.

Green infrastructure seeks to slow, capture, filter, or absorb water before it flows down a drain. Three of the most common techniques are:

  • Rain gardens (bioinfiltration) are depressions filled with plants that can help take up water, reducing how much goes into the sewer system and the amount of pollution in the water. Rain gardens can be exceptionally beautiful, but require a relatively large and flat site.
  • Permeable pavement is used to convert parking lots, walkways, and other light-use paved surfaces from impermeable surfaces to surfaces where water is able to filter through soil and gravel below.
  • Bioswales are gently-sloped, vegetated landscapes that allow water to flow through them and filter out pollutants and silt before water enters storm drains.

Regional Stormwater Permit Mandates Green Infrastructure

Cities are growing increasingly interested in using this technology in part because the regional stormwater permit requires cities to use these techniques to reduce the amount of mercury and PCB that flows into the Bay from urban runoff. The regional permit encourages cities to reduce water repellant surfaces and maximize vegetated surfaces that will absorb stormwater, rather than letting it run to the Bay. The plants and soil will filter out toxic mercury and PCBs in what will ultimately be a more resilient and sustainable system.

Green Infrastructure in Action

Regulations aside, the flexibility of green infrastructure means that it can suit needs as diverse as those of our cities. In San Francisco where large storms overwhelm an antique sewer system and flooding is a concern, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has begun to install green infrastructure sites throughout the city as a part of their 20 year, 6 billion dollar Sewer System Improvement Program.

These sites are intended to slow the flow of water during major storm events. San Francisco’s sewer system treats both wastewater and stormwater together (systems that are separate in other Bay Area cities). When the combined system is overwhelmed, some of the water must be released without being fully treated.

Planners are also taking advantage of green infrastructure’s aesthetic appeal to reimagine streets as both less burdensome on water management infrastructure, but also more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, more livable, and more beautiful. At sites such as the Newcomb Avenue Green Street in the Bayview Neighborhood of San Francisco, green stormwater management is being installed in concert with streetscape improvements and traffic calming techniques. In addition to creating a more pleasant and resilient urban environment, peak flows of rainwater to the sewer at this site were reduced by more than 75%.

In San Jose where there is a housing shortage and lack of densely developed areas, the city’s plan is to develop urban villages in which public streetscape improvements accompany private mixed use development. San Jose plans to curb the amount of mercury and PCBs it releases into the bay by treating more of its stormwater through green infrastructure projects at these kinds of sites.

In the East Bay, the cities of Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, and San Pablo are working with the San Francisco Estuary Partnership and Caltrans on a project called the San Pablo Green Stormwater Spine. They plan to install rain gardens, stormwater planters, and other low impact development projects to filter polluted runoff and to calm traffic and provide greenery along San Pablo Avenue. These projects have not broken ground yet, but once complete they will treat runoff from more than 4 acres of impervious surface and help beautify and calm traffic along a major thoroughfare.

What Can We Expect to See?

As stronger storms, rising sea levels, and increasing development put more and more strain on our aging systems, the challenges of stormwater management will grow. Green infrastructure can help solve these problems by slowing down and cleaning water before it flows into storm drains and out into the Bay. Furthermore, green infrastructure mimics the processes of nature and benefits communities by minimizing the urban heat-island effect, calming traffic and beautifying our streets.

We need our cities to move forward with these kinds of projects now; our limitations of our gray infrastructure are real and green infrastructure technology is proven and available.

As the Bay Area experiences rapid urban growth and population expansion, investments in green infrastructure will be vital to minimize the negative impacts that development has on the quality of the Bay. Stay tuned to learn more about green stormwater management and how we can help the Bay Area better minimize polluted runoff.

On a stronger path to Zero Trash

Stormwater pollution

On November 19, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board approved a stronger set of regulations for protecting water quality in our creeks and the Bay. The Municipal Regional Stormwater Permit regulates the untreated water that flows through the storm drains of Bay Area cities. This permit is one of our best tools for preventing the flow of trash from city streets into the Bay.

Trash in stormwater has been regulated since 2009 

In the Bay Area, trash has only been regulated as a pollutant in stormwater since 2009, when the Water Board adopted the first stormwater permit. The landmark 2009 permit established a timeline for cities to reduce trash in their stormwater system by 40% from 2009 levels by 2014, 70% by 2017, and a full 100% by 2022. As a part of this process, cities were required to evaluate their jurisdictions and made maps indicating how much trash is generated in each part of the city, and were required to identify and remedy trash hot spots, or creek and Bay shoreline locations where trash accumulates.

The 2009 regulations came about as a direct result of intense advocacy on the part of Save The Bay, our supporters, and other regional organizations. Bay Area cities have now had more than five years to develop and implement plans to keep trash out of their stormwater. Now that the Water Board has adopted a stronger policy, we have an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and successes of the last five years in order to chart a more productive path towards Zero Trash.

How have we done so far? 

Progress towards the stormwater permit’s zero trash requirement has been inconsistent, and it is unlikely that our region achieved the first milestone in the permit—a 40% reduction in trash by July 2014. While cities have implemented a variety of solutions, many trash problems remain. The City of Oakland, for example, beefed up their capacity to respond to illegal dumping —a major source of trash in the city. Their program removed over 34,000 cubic yards of illegally dumped trash in the last year, preventing a huge amount of trash from flowing in to storm drains and out to the Bay. However, a solution to the persistent trash problem in downtown Oakland remains elusive, which means trash from this area continues to flow into local waterways on a regular basis.

Cities are still struggling with monitoring programs to track their progress towards zero trash. Without adequate data it is impossible to say if the region is on track to achieve zero trash or if our cities need to implement more effective solutions. The City of Vallejo claims to have cut trash in half, but provides little data demonstrating that their trash reduction efforts are working. Meanwhile, the city still has hundreds of acres of trashy area to address over the next few years. An ongoing challenge will be to balance cities’ efforts to remove trash from their creeks with the need to prevent trash from reaching creeks in the first place. Actions to prevent trash from entering storm drains should be prioritized, but we also want to encourage cleanup efforts to prevent creek trash from flowing into the Bay and threatening wildlife.

Despite the challenges we face on the way to achieving the zero trash goal, the original timeline of zero trash by 2022 still stands. It’s important that the cities and citizens of the Bay Area take this goal seriously, as delays in reducing trash levels will only have damaging impacts on the health of the San Francisco Bay.

The New Permit and Next Steps 

Save The Bay advocated for many improvements to the stormwater permit based on the last five years of successes and challenges. The version adopted this week is a stronger step towards zero trash.

The new permit includes an additional benchmark for trash reduction, which requires cities to demonstrate an 80% reduction in trash by 2019. It also includes a provision for cities to establish monitoring programs in their creeks—in addition to their urban areas—so they can see how much of an effect their efforts at on-land cleanup have had on the creeks themselves.

The revised permit will still require zero trash by 2022. Eliminating trash flows to the Bay over the next 7 years is a big goal, but one that is frankly long overdue. We want the Bay Area to be a leader in eliminating stormwater pollution, and the new stormwater permit will help to ensure we achieve this goal.

With stronger regulations in place, Save The Bay will be working closely with local cities to ensure that we meet these ambitious goals. It’s going to take all of us. If you haven’t already, sign the Zero Trash Pledge and we’ll keep you updated about how to make sure that our region gets to zero trash.