Earth Day Cleanup For a #ButtFreeBay

Earth Day Cigarette Butt Cleanup
Volunteers collected 7,873 cigarette butts our Earth Day Cleanup in El Cerrito.

Thank you so much to everyone who came out to participate in our Earth Day Cigarette Butt Cleanup in El Cerrito last month! The event was a huge success, and the city was so grateful for the help you all provided. We had over 30 people join us on April 18, including EarthTeam, an organization of local students that has been tracking and working to reduce litter in the Bay Area as well. Check out their interactive Zero Litter map here!

With our volunteers, we were able to clean and survey four main areas of the city to analyze where cigarette debris is accumulating. The city of El Cerrito adopted an outdoor smoking ordinance at the beginning of this year, and we were interested in surveying the downtown area of El Cerrito to help the city monitor its progress in reducing cigarette litter and reducing exposure to second hand smoke. In under 3 hours, our volunteers were able to collect a total of 7,873 cigarettes, and the city as a whole collected a total of 12,236 cigarettes!

Some of the areas we found with the greatest number of cigarettes included the BART station area on nearby sidewalks and the Ohlone Greenway, as well as bus stops near shopping centers, bars on San Pablo avenue, and a Police and Fire station. We found almost 900 cigarettes at the BART station alone.

El Cerrito’s outdoor smoking ordinance is a huge step toward reducing the city’s cigarette litter and keeping local waterways clean of this toxic trash, but the ordinance requires a stronger approach to compliance and enforcement. Although the ordinance is relatively new, as it went into effect in January,  the city has made some efforts to inform the public about the new legislation. Mailers have been sent to citizens and signs were posted on San Pablo Avenue, but the amount of cigarette litter present suggests that many people are unaware of the new ordinance.

In order for the ordinance to have the intended effects of reducing toxic litter and protecting the public from the detrimental effects of secondhand smoke, stronger compliance and enforcement methods need to be implemented, especially in hot spot areas for cigarette butts. Visible signage in polluted areas is a good first step – we did not see any “no smoking” signs at bus stops along San Pablo Ave., nor anywhere along the Ohlone Greenway. The BART station was another striking hot spot – the City of El Cerrito should work with BART to drastically reduce the flow of cigarette butts from the BART station and parking lot into local waterways and storm drains. Working with businesses is also necessary, to help them understand the new restrictions and to explore ways that they can be partners in establishing smoke free commercial areas.

El Cerrito’s ordinance has the potential to create a healthier community and protect local waterways, but the amount of cigarette litter we collected shows that outdoor smoking is continuing at an alarming rate, threatening the health of El Cerrito residents and the Bay. We urge the city to prioritize the outreach and enforcement strategies necessary to ensure the successful implementation of this ordinance.

Goo Be Gone: Funding for Bay Area Spills

Mystery Goo bird release
International Bird Rescue released the last bird that recovered from Mystery Goo on April 15, 2015. SB 718 would provide funding for non-petroleum based spills in San Francisco Bay. Photo credit: Soren Hemmila/Marinscope Newspapers

The “Mystery Goo” spill early this January threw the Bay Area for a loop – wildlife, particularly birds, were drastically impacted, and as non-profits such as International Bird Rescue stretched their resources to their absolute limits, government remained hopelessly entangled in the specificities of legislation. When all was said and done, the financial burden of spill control and wildlife rehabilitation was entirely shouldered by local environmental non-profits, totaling over $150,000. Why? Because up until this point, there hasn’t been the funding mechanism in place for government to address non-petroleum based spills.

Senators Mark Leno and Loni Hancock stepped up to the plate to address this issue with Senate Bill 718. In the event that a spill is not petroleum based, the bill would allow the Office of Spill Prevention and Response to borrow up to $500,000 from the state’s oil spill prevention fund for wildlife rehabilitation and rescue. Senator Leno announced the bill in late March, stating, “California has a sophisticated oil spill response system, but in the unique event when a pollutant is unidentified, there is no clear funding mechanism for the cleanup. SB 718 clarifies that the state’s top priority during a spill of any kind is to immediately protect waterways and wildlife, regardless of what type of substance caused the problem.”

For the San Francisco Bay, this is extremely important legislation. San Francisco Bay is among the top three principal Pacific Coast gateways for U.S. cargo, with the Port of Oakland ranking as the fifth busiest container port in the nation – not to mention the many industries surrounding the Bay shoreline as well. These flourishing businesses are what keep the Bay Area vibrant and successful, but they also pose a huge risk daily for spills of all kinds into our beautiful Bay ecosystem. SB 718 will provide the legal how-to for wildlife protection in the event of another “mystery goo” tragedy, and we cannot risk another devastating spill without emergency resources in place.

The spill in January killed over 300 native birds, and even after weeks of testing, scientists were unable to identify the substance or the source of the spill. Over 500 birds were affected by the mysterious spill, and although International Bird Rescue was able to rehabilitate close to 150 animals, rescue efforts would have been more successful if a government plan was in place for addressing the spill.

SB 718 is a necessary safety net to preserve the Bay’s wildlife in case of the worst, and Save the Bay is proud to be one of the organizations supporting this legislation.

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.

Litter and Lungs: The Many Ways Cigarettes Are Impacting You

Photo by: Lindsay Bernsen
Photo by: Lindsay Bernsen

Save the Bay’s most recent pollution prevention initiative, the Butt Free Bay Campaign, is fighting the flow of toxic, plastic cigarette butts into the San Francisco Bay. We are currently calling on Bay Area cities and counties to pass outdoor smoking bans to stop the constant flow of this poison trash at the source, and protect the Bay from second hand smoke. El Cerrito responded to the call in October 2014 and adopted the Smoking Pollution Protection Ordinance. As of this year, El Cerrito law prohibits smoking in parks, recreation areas, trails, city property, public sidewalks, and commercial areas!

El Cerrito’s progress has not just been noticed by Save the Bay. The American Lung Association recently released their 2015 “State of Tobacco Control” grades for all California communities, and El Cerrito’s grade changed from an F to an A since last year’s report. The American Lung Association grades cities based on several categories, including smoke-free outdoor air, smoke-free housing, and reduced sales of tobacco products.  Save the Bay worked closely with the El Cerrito city council after last year’s grade report to educate city officials on the environmental impacts of cigarette butt litter in our Bay, and we couldn’t be more excited about their success.

In the 2015 year, we are hoping to see many more cities following in El Cerrito’s footsteps by adopting comprehensive ordinances that strongly restrict outdoor smoking. The American Lung Association report showed that a shocking 49 Bay Area communities still receive a failing grade for regulating smoking outdoors, which indicates cigarette litter and second hand smoke are an ongoing and concerning issue for the bay.

Save the Bay has chosen to focus strongly on this litter item after our success with plastic bags and Styrofoam food ware because cigarette butts are consistently the top litter item collected on our shores every coastal cleanup day. The filter top, although fibrous, is actually made of plastic, meaning that it does not biodegrade and can linger in our oceans for centuries. Finally, cigarettes also leach toxins and heavy metals into the water, threatening our water quality and wildlife.

Outdoor smoking is a major concern for Save the Bay because there is a 65% littering rate for cigarette butts, and an estimated 3 billion cigarette butts are washed into the Bay each year. In San Mateo, which received a D grade by the American Lung Association overall, over 500 cigarettes were collected by Save the Bay at one bus stop alone. Littered cigarettes cost millions in cleanup for our cities, with San Francisco estimating it spends 6 million dollars annually on cigarette clean up alone, while much of this trash is still flowing into our waterways, and eventually the Bay.

Cigarette butts pollute our waterways, while second hand smoke continues to threaten public health. While the environmental impacts of cigarettes are relatively recent concerns, the impacts of second hand smoke are well known, but discussed less and less often. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released their 2015 report on second hand smoke, revealing the terrifying, and often ignored, truth that millions of non-smokers are exposed to the dangers of cigarette smoke. Low income and minority communities have higher second hand smoke exposure, with 43% of nonsmokers below the poverty line exposed to second hand smoke. Among African Americans, 50% percent of adult non-smokers, and a shocking 70% of children are exposed to toxic second hand smoke each year. Overall, 40% of children nationwide are impacted by cigarette smoke. The Bay Area has some of the highest rates of asthma in kids, with cigarette smoke known to be a major asthma trigger. In Alameda county, the hospitalization rate of children with asthma is twice the state average, and hospitalization rate in West Oakland is five times the average.

Save the Bay is hoping to see more Bay Area cities create stronger policies based on the American Lung Association grades, and we look forward to continuing our work with local governments to educate officials and the public on the dangers of toxic cigarette waste. We need to stop this pollution at the source to keep our air and waters clean. Sign our petition calling on your city to pass an outdoor smoking ban to protect both the Bay, and the health of our children.