First Flush Drains Pollution into the Bay

What comes to your mind when entering the bath after a long, busy day? Most likely you’ll be feeling clean and relaxed. However, have you ever thought about the contents of your bath water afterwards? After all, the oils, bacteria, and other grime on your body don’t magically disappear after they’ve been stripped off.

Similarly, rain flowing through streets appears to clean the landscape as it washes away trash and dirt. Unfortunately, the first significant rainfall of the year holds an often overlooked dirty not-so-secret. It’s called the first flush, and it’s not just trash and dirt that’s being removed from Bay Area streets. Motor oil, cigarette butts, pet waste, pesticides, and other pollutants are picked up by rainwater and enter storm drains, which flow into creeks and ultimately into San Francisco Bay, which acts as a bathtub for the region that drains into the ocean.

North Bay Fire’s Continued Destruction

This year, the first flush brings with it an even greater concern for pollutants into the local waterscape with the tragic and devastating North Bay firestorm in Sonoma and Napa Counties. In addition to homes and businesses, the fires destroyed vegetation that would have stored excess rainwater and filtered its contents through soil. This means that wastes such as household chemicals and heavy metals from burnt areas, which turn more toxic after being exposed to fire, can flow much more freely into local creeks and into the Bay, making the first flush that much more hazardous to wildlife and public health.

The good news is that North Bay, state, and federal officials have acknowledged this threat to regional water quality and are constructing and planning collection ponds to capture and filter debris-ridden water before it enters creeks. Nevertheless, with the additional burden coming from this tragedy, Bay Area residents should be extra vigilant at preventing trash and other pollution from ending up in the Bay and further poisoning wildlife and water quality.

How Can I Help?

Rain is nature’s way of cleansing the landscape, but first flush serves as a reminder that our urban areas act as nature’s drain and there is still a lot of work to be done to stop the flow of pollution into San Francisco Bay. We can start with simple actions such as not littering, moving cars from the sidewalk on street sweeping days, using reusable bags and bottles, and taking the pledge to prevent trash from entering the Bay.

 

Our Chance to Uphold California’s Bag Ban

plastic-bag

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.

How We Did it: Banning Plastic Bags in the Bay Area and Beyond

To learn more about California’s journey to a statewide bag ban, check out our interactive timeline.
To learn more about California’s journey to a statewide bag ban, check out our interactive timeline.

For the last 6 years, Save The Bay has worked publicly and behind the scenes to build the progress necessary to secure today’s victory at the statewide level. 80 percent of Bay Area residents live in a jurisdiction that has adopted a plastic bag ban and the rest of our region is now covered under California’s statewide bag ban. How did we get to this point?

In designing our “The Bay vs. The Bag” campaign, we asked ourselves one important question: What could compel Bay Area city council members and county supervisors to pass a plastic bag ban in their communities? Let’s explore this journey and the underlying strategy that guided us toward success.

A commitment:

To hold cities and counties accountable to taking action on plastic bags, we needed their commitment to the overall goal of reducing pollution flowing into the Bay. That’s why in 2009, we succeeded in getting the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board to adopt a regional permit that regulates trash flowing from storm drains into our Bay, with the requirement of reducing stormwater trash by 70 percent by 2017 and by 100 percent by 2022.

A trend:

By pressuring key cities to adopt bag bans, we could make it easier for future cities to get on the bag ban band wagon. It would be important to maintain momentum and create the perception that “everyone is getting on board” with bag bans, so that cities yet to adopt a ban would feel the pressure to take action. In 2009, we launched our “The Bay vs. the Bag” campaign to eliminate plastic bag pollution in the Bay Area by working to enact city and countywide plastic bag bans and create a regional trend.

A model:

We needed a major city to take the lead and demonstrate that a plastic bag ban was politically feasible and made good economic sense. That’s why, in 2008, we began working to get the Bay Area’s largest city, San Jose, to adopt a plastic bag ban. Two years of meetings with city council members, organizing local and regional groups, gathering and reporting bag litter data, and engaging neighboring cities to pledge their support finally led to success in 2010.

Partnerships:

In order to appeal to specific regional interests and lawmakers, we needed to build regional partnerships with the organizations and groups who held sway in the community. This proved to be especially important for the business community, to address city officials’ concerns about potential economic impacts of a bag ban. In working to pass a countywide ban in San Mateo, we partnered with the California Grocers Association to make the case that plastic bag bans will benefit the Bay and that consistent policies across city borders make the most sense  for residents and grocers.

Information:

One major need Save The Bay filled was educating city staff and officials about the extent of the plastic bag litter problem, its impacts on our Bay, and what other cities were doing to address this problem.  We gave presentations and provided case studies and fact sheets to dozens of cities, influencing their decision to pass bag bans. Citing data from shoreline and creek cleanups, we made the case that plastic bags were littering the Bay in huge numbers; in 2009, we estimated that over 1 million bags flowed into the Bay each year. We were also able to point to San Jose as a success story: one year after their ban went into effect, bag litter decreased by 89% in the city’s storm drains and 69% in its creeks. Communicating these compelling stats – both on the scope of the problem and the effectiveness of the solution – helped us convince cities to adopt bans.

Public support: 

A final and crucial piece of our strategy was to demonstrate public support of a plastic bag ban, both to hold elected officials accountable and provide them with the ammunition they’d need to stick their necks out and vote in support of a bag ban. Over the last 4 years, we’ve mobilized our community through online petitions in over 14 cities and counties, and outreach efforts in countless others. These petitions are often cited by decision-makers in their supporting statements for a bag ban.

To learn more about California’s journey to a statewide bag ban, check out our interactive timeline. 

Plastic Bags Aren’t Banned Until They’re Really Banned

Next month, the Alameda County Waste Management Authority – Stopwaste – will assess the effectiveness of the county’s plastic bag ban and consider whether or not to expand it to all types of stores. Save The Bay is encouraging Stopwaste to close the gaps in their current policy and ban plastic bags at all retailers, just as Richmond, El Cerrito, Walnut Creek, and many other Bay Area cities have done.

alameda plastic bag ban
Photo credit: Dave Bleasdale

Since going into effect on January 1, 2013, Alameda County’s Reusable Bag Ordinance has banned the use of plastic bags at check-out and instead encourages shoppers to bring their own reusable bag or purchase paper bags for a minimum of 10 cents. But, the ordinance only applies to stores that sell food – grocery stores, large pharmacies, convenience stores – which means that over 5,000 of the county’s 7,000 retailers are still handing out plastic bags.

Alameda County, like many municipalities around the Bay Area, understands the environmental and fiscal benefits that single-use plastic bag bans can bring. Plastic bags are one of the most ubiquitous litter items found in our urban and natural areas and pose a deadly threat to wildlife that become entangled in or mistakenly ingest them.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board requires 76 Bay Area cities to eliminate trash from their storm drains and creeks by 2022. Bag bans are one of the ways that cities can tackle their trash problem, reducing trash at the source and saving tax-payer money spent on extensive litter clean-ups.

We reviewed four years of trash cleanup data from all over the county and found that although the ban went into effect at the beginning of 2013, plastic bag litter was still present at more than half of the county’s trash “hot spot” sites throughout the year. While the number of bags littered may be decreasing, getting to zero trash will require stronger policies.

Alameda County has come a long way on their journey to tackle plastic bag litter – it’s time to finish the job. Please join us in urging the Stopwaste Board to implement a comprehensive bag ban that covers all retail stores and restaurants, and protect the Bay and its watershed from plastic pollution.

Bay Trash Hot Spots Update: Pulgas Creek holds lead

Guadalupe River Trash
Plastic pollutes the Guadalupe River in San Jose. Should we adopt this spot? (photo: E. Samonsky)

The 2011 Bay Trash Hot Spots are five Bay locations where Save The Bay and cities have identified high levels of trash: Mission Creek in SanFrancisco, Guadalupe River in San Jose, Damon Slough in Oakland, Baxter Creek in Richmond and Pulgas Creek in San Carlos.

Vote for one of the five Bay Trash Hot Spots and we will “adopt” the spot with the most votes with a series of volunteer cleanups throughout 2012. Which Hot Spot should we adopt?

With 864 votes counted, Pulgas Creek in San Carlos is still in the lead. Oakland’s Damon Slough is in close 2nd, and Guadalupe River is gaining  — which spot will win?

1. Pulgas Creek in San Carlos –  216

2. Damon Slough in Oakland – 202

3. Guadalupe River in San Jose – 173

4. Mission Creek in San Francisco – 164

5. Baxter Creek in Richmond – 109

Is your choice winning? Vote today!

Are you on Twitter? Tweet #BTHS11 to tell your followers about Bay Trash Hot Spots 2011.