The Quest for Zero Trash in the Bay: Local Spotlights

On Tuesday, I wrote about the Bay Area’s overall progress in reducing trash flows to the Bay. I noted that some cities are doing well at addressing their portion of the problem, while others are falling far behind requirements and are in violation of their stormwater permits. Today I’m digging a little deeper, with a detailed overview of six cities and one county which have made varying progress to reduce trash in their communities and storm drains.

Vallejo (population 120,228)
Vallejo claimed to have achieved a 34.8 percent reduction in stormwater trash in 2017, which is actually a step backward from their 44 percent estimate in 2016 and is well below the required 70 percent reduction by 2017. This adjustment—the result of more accurate calculations—means that the city is further behind schedule than expected to meet the zero trash requirement by 2022. Vallejo claims that fiscal constraints, along with outdated trash data, resulted in the city’s failure to reach the 70 percent requirement. The city has recognized these issues and published a report on how it will come into compliance with the trash requirements. Vallejo plans to install trash capture devices in city storm drains in 2018, but did not specify how many. Other actions include more accurate trash monitoring, increasing street sweeping, and partnering with local businesses including Six Flags to clean and maintain highly visible public areas.The city’s report admits that it will continue to be behind reduction schedule for the next three years, aiming to reach 70 percent trash reduction by 2019 and 80 percent by 2020. Nevertheless, it plans to meet the 2022 zero trash requirement. Vallejo has been able to secure $1.4 million for trash capture devices and other trash reduction strategies, but it is unclear whether this will fund all necessary activities. Save The Bay is very concerned about Vallejo’s lack of progress on trash.
Alameda County (unincorporated) (population 140,800)
The unincorporated areas of Alameda County (e.g. Castro Valley, San Lorenzo) claim an 18.5 percent reduction in 2017, up from 12 percent in 2016. This figure is among the lowest trash reduction rates in the region and is of great concern given the size and population of this area and the fact that little has been done by the county government for seven years. The only trash reduction measures so far have been bans on single-use plastic bags and take-out Styrofoam containers, as well as trash capture devices that cover only a small area.The county has plans to install three trash capture systems in specific high trash areas and smaller devices in other areas by the end of 2018. If these systems are installed this year, Alameda County expects to have achieve an 84 percent reduction by the end of 2018. Any additional delays, however, could put them even farther behind schedule and place the county at risk of enforcement action by the Water Board.
Oakland (population 420,005)
Oakland claims a 74.7 percent reduction in trash for 2017, up from 44.6 percent in 2016. The city identified areas with the most street trash and areas with homeless encampments as two major priorities. Oakland has cooperated with business improvement districts (BIDs) that have full-time staff to remove litter and manage trash containers. Increased cooperation with BIDs, along with business inspections to ensure they are managing trash effectively, resulted in an over 20 percent reduction in its highest trash area. In addition, as part of the city’s Homeless Encampment Program, over 48,000 gallons of trash were removed from 390 encampments.Oakland has not completed an adequate amount of trash monitoring to ensure their results are accurate, but city staff have indicated their intent to continue monitoring and adjust their reported trash levels appropriately. Save The Bay will follow up with the city soon to find out the results.
San Jose (population 1,042,094) San Jose claims a 79.2 percent reduction in 2017, up from 53.3 percent in 2016. Full capture systems have been installed in various neighborhoods and the city has implemented the Business Intelligence Data Tracking System to track trash collection activity. San Jose has also launched an aggressive cleanup campaign to remove trash from homeless encampments by its Homeless Response Team, focusing on encampments along creeks. Homelessness continues to be a major social and environmental crisis for the city and its residents, and arguably its largest source of trash in local rivers and creeks. San Jose plans to address the problem from multiple angles while conducting cleanups and outreach to encampment residents to prevent more trash from flowing into local waterways.
East Palo Alto (population 31,000)
East Palo Alto claims a 59.7 percent reduction in 2017, up from 29.2 percent in 2016. Despite this large jump, the city still failed to meet the 70 percent reduction requirement by 2017. Most of this reduction has come from storm drain cleaning, illegal dumping enforcement, and better management of trash bins to prevent overflows into storm drains. In 2016, the city acknowledged that it was behind schedule for trash reduction due to ineffective strategies and aimed for 50 percent reduction in 2017.Moving forward, East Palo Alto plans to improve street sweeping methods and has contracted engineering firms to install a full trash capture system by summer 2018. The successful implementation of these strategies is expected to bring the city to 80 percent compliance next year, but any additional roadblocks threaten to keep the city in violation of its trash requirements.
Richmond (population 109,000)
Richmond claims an 81.8 percent reduction in 2017, a gain from 27.3 percent in 2016. This increase was among the region’s highest improvements in trash reduction in 2017. Richmond’s success is largely attributed to the city installing new full capture devices that cover an area of over 800 acres. The city also continued to increase street sweeping frequency in its worst trash areas and has launched a neighborhood beautification and liter control program called Love Your Block. Richmond’s success in spite of its resource struggles can serve as a model for other Bay Area cities covered by the storm water permit that are having trouble meeting trash reduction requirements.
Mountain View (population 80,477)
Mountain View claims an 84.6 percent reduction in 2017, up from 48.4 percent in 2016. In contrast to most Bay Area cities, Mountain View’s trash reduction strategy has focused more on control measures other than installing trash capture systems. Due to the large corporate presence in Mountain View, the city conducts annual trash inspections of office buildings to ensure trash is being contained and bins are not overflowing into storm drains. The city has also installed rain gardens and other nature-based stormwater filtration elements to treat runoff from developed areas. Mountain View has plans to install additional full capture devices between now and 2022. The city was falling behind on trash requirements for many years, but has shown significant progress in 2017.


A Note About Caltrans

Many cities identified state roads and highway corridors—managed by Caltrans—as trash hot spots, some having higher trash levels than any other areas in the city. While cities and counties are not responsible for trash on these roadways, much of it is blown onto city streets. This is a major problem for our cities, who are already struggling to achieve their own reduction requirements. Caltrans is not taking responsibility for keeping trash out of the Bay, which is why we are calling upon the Regional Water Board to take enforcement action against the agency. Read more and sign our petition here.

What’s Next?

As I noted on Tuesday, municipalities that fail to meet the Regional Water Board’s trash reduction targets are required to provide detailed plans for getting back on track and meeting future targets. After Oakland failed to achieve the 60 percent trash reduction deadline in 2016, the city developed a detailed plan with strategies for tackling the city’s diverse trash problems, which helped Oakland make significant progress on trash reduction in the past year. Save The Bay then fought hard for funding in the city budget to implement certain elements of the plan, including cleaning up illegal dumping and installing trash capture devices. Without resources, plans will simply sit on the shelf. Each city that hasn’t met the 70 percent requirement and those who are at risk of falling behind should produce detailed plans for getting to zero trash that include secured funding sources for each project.

Save the Bay will continue to work with local communities and the Regional Water Board to ensure our region achieves zero trash by 2022, but we need the help of Bay Area residents in order to do so. You can help by organizing and participating neighborhood cleanups, adopting your local storm drain, urging local officials to prioritize projects that reduce stormwater trash and other pollution, and staying engaged with Save The Bay for other opportunities to take action.

The State of Trash in 2017: Bay Area Progress in Reducing Trash Flows to the Bay

The maps above show cities and counties covered by the Regional Stormwater Permit. The size of the dots represents a municipality’s population size. Cities highlighted in yellow and green are in compliance with the 2017 mandatory 70% trash reduction requirement, while cities highlighted in 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.

Trash flowing into the San Francisco Bay from stormwater systems is one of the most visible environmental issues in the Bay Area. The trash circulating in waterways—much of which is plastic and will never biodegrade—not only spoils shoreline scenery and harms wildlife, but also makes its way out into the Bay, which drains into already badly polluted oceans.

In order to address this issue, 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. This is to be achieved through steady targets, with a 70 percent reduction in trash from 2009 levels in 2017 and an 80 percent reduction by July 2019.

Last year, we wrote about how cities were progressing on the path to Zero Trash, and we are back this year to give you an update on progress made in 2017. There is some good news around the region. Many of the largest improvements over the last year have been in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, as well as the Bay-side cities of Alameda County. However, a handful of communities have lagged far behind, particularly in Contra Costa County. Which cities are on the path to zero trash by 2022, and which ones are violating clean water regulations? 

Six communities still send trash to the Bay at alarming rates


In 2016, cities were encouraged, but not required, to achieve a 60 percent reduction in trash to help ensure that they are on track to preventing all trash from entering storm drains by 2022. But the 70 percent target last year wasn’t a suggestion: it was mandatory. Unfortunately, six of the 78 Bay Area cities, counties, and agencies under these requirements failed to achieve a 70 percent reduction by 2017: Vallejo, Hercules, Pinole, Alameda County (unincorporated areas), Livermore, and East Palo Alto.

After studying annual trash data for several years, we are particularly concerned with this group of cities because they have a history of not complying with trash reduction targets. These places are now subject to penalties from the Regional Water Board, including costly fines or Cease and Desist orders. They’ve also left themselves open to third party litigation, which already happened to the City of San Jose a couple years ago. There is no excuse for inaction: we want to see plans for achieving zero trash in these communities and a commitment of funding for the work that needs to be done.

Spotty trash monitoring throughout the region


Cities are required to monitor trash in their streets to prove that their clean-up and prevention strategies are working. So how do you measure trash levels? One way of measuring how much trash is generated in an area is through on-land visual trash assessment (OVTAs), during which city staff record amounts of trash along the street curb at several locations throughout the city several times per year. These assessments translate to gallons of trash littered per acre in a year, and are divided into four categories: low (less than 5 gal/acre/year), moderate (5-10), high (10-50), and very high (greater than 50). The Regional Water Board requires cities to measure trash at the same location at least four times annually to be confident that the data truly reflect an area’s trash levels. Unfortunately, at the time when they submitted their 2017 reports, most municipalities—including many who claim to have achieved the 70 percent reduction—had not conducted a sufficient number of assessments. Some acknowledged that their data was preliminary and subject to change as they complete more assessments, but many seem to have brushed this requirement aside. We can’t have confidence in incomplete data.

Some positive trends, and lots of work to do


The communities in violation of the trash requirements have had seven years to plan and execute strategies to reduce stormwater trash. Their lack of action is unacceptable. Resources challenges have been cited by most as a reason for the delay, but cities with tight budgets such as Oakland and Richmond have managed to make significant progress by allocating more of their own budgetary resources, cost-sharing with other agencies, and pursuing grant funding.

The trash map shows much improvement in our region over the past year, which is great news for Bay wildlife and water quality. We applaud those communities who claim to have made great strides—a few report having achieved zero trash, or close to it, already. But these are the exception, not the rule; there is still a lot of work to be done in order to achieve the 100 percent trash reduction goal by 2022.

Read our report on individual cities and their success—or lack thereof—in reducing trash and meeting the stormwater permit.

Op-Ed: Trump budget would make America dirty and sick again

Jorge Gonzalez, searches for debris near collected old tires at Warm Water Cove, in San Francisco, Calif., as he joins hundreds of volunteers participating in the Community Team's Coastal Cleanup Day, at different locations along the San Francisco Bay shoreline, on Sat. September 19, 2015. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Jorge Gonzalez, searches for debris near collected old tires at Warm Water Cove, in San Francisco, Calif., as he joins hundreds of volunteers participating in the Community Team’s Coastal Cleanup Day, at different locations along the San Francisco Bay shoreline, on Sat. September 19, 2015. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

President Trump’s budget proposal is a direct assault on our health and safety. The enormous cuts he is proposing to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other departments will hurt people and the planet by gutting enforcement of laws that protect the water we drink, the air we breathe and the environment that sustains us.

How many voters last year asked for more smoggy skies and fouled water, for less enforcement of criminal pollution and faster climate change? It’s doubtful most Trump voters want that, but his budget sides with polluter interests and climate deniers — not with us.

The EPA has a huge responsibility but a tiny budget. Out of every $10 in federal taxes, just two cents goes to the EPA. Cutting the EPA’s budget by 31 percent would not save much money, but it would cost a lot in lives, in lost productivity from illness and in pollution damage to crucial resources such as San Francisco Bay.

The Bay is our region’s greatest natural treasure, the heart of our economy and quality of life. It took enormous effort to return the Bay to health from near-death 40 years ago, when it was choked with garbage, sewage and industrial waste.

The Clean Water Act and the EPA helped build treatment plants in the 1970s that made the Bay’s beaches safe and its waters swimmable again. Harbor porpoises have even returned to the Bay.

As the Bay Area keeps growing, we need more federal investment, not less, to combat the impacts of climate change, freshwater diversion and polluted storm water pouring unfiltered off streets into the Bay.

Bay Area voters agreed to tax themselves in last year’s Measure AA to accelerate shoreline wetlands restoration that’s mostly within a federal wildlife refuge. The federal government should match our investment, yet Trump’s budget would zero out EPA’s $5 million program that protects marsh habitat and reduces pollution in the Bay.

And the cuts go much deeper.

The Bay Area environment is not a bubble. We’re connected to the rest of California and the nation, where the EPA’s programs have made people and wildlife healthier and safer. Agency warnings about threats to fish species and water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are forcing a rewrite of Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Water Fix. The EPA’s Clean Air Act enforcement reduced smog from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh and forced safer drinking water in cities nationwide. To avoid more health crises like the tragedy in Flint, Mich., we need a stronger EPA, not budget cuts that slash enforcement.

The EPA identifies and cleans up toxic waste at Superfund sites, including more than 50 in the Bay Area. Its Toxics Release Inventory publishes data online so we know the pollution risks in our backyards. It is on the front lines of addressing the climate change that is already hurting our health, natural resources and economy.

The EPA has helped cut global warming gases from U.S. power plants, factories and cars, and its energy efficiency standards have reduced our consumption of fossil fuels. While Trump and his Cabinet deny facts and ignore science, the EPA is required by law to limit the carbon emissions that are cooking the planet. But that takes resources and staff that Trump would cut.

We must tell Congress to reject reckless budget cuts to environmental protection. Every mayor and city council member must echo that call. Our governor and state Legislature must keep their pledge to enforce laws if the federal government does relax its efforts, and fund enforcement of those laws.

Trump’s budget would make America dirty and sick again, and nobody who breathes or drinks should stand for it.


David Lewis is the executive director of Save the Bay. Learn more at
This Op-ed was originally published in the SF Chronicle on 3/18,2017. 

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.

I’m Choosing People Over Politics

Allison Chan_07e (800x537)
As we witness the official upheaval of our country’s leadership, I am ready to collaborate with anyone who, regardless of their political views, are trying to do the right thing for people, communities, and our natural resources.

Like many of us, on the night of the election I cried.

I cried for women, for immigrants, for people who have been wronged by a racially-biased justice system, for the unemployed, for the LGBTQ community, and for our environment. I cried for the daughter I’m about to bring into the world, that the society she will be born into is one in which you can mock, ridicule, and verbally abuse people on national television and still win a presidential election.

So I stuck my head in the sand. I barely opened Facebook for weeks (gasp). I limited most of my online interaction to looking at people’s vacation and holiday photos. But in this virtual absence I did a lot of thinking. Certainly we have more power than we think—even in the election aftermath people across the country successfully demanded justice and change in their communities. We may have not been able to stop the inauguration or these asinine cabinet appointments, but starting today we can respond by being strategic, creative, and collaborative. And honestly, if you live in California, you have an obligation to keep your head up and show that change is possible, no matter who’s in the Oval Office.

“We may have not been able to stop the inauguration or these asinine cabinet appointments, but starting today we can respond by being strategic, creative, and collaborative.”


In the Bay Area, we’re in a double bubble: we have many local elected officials who are committed to ensuring safe and equitable communities where our natural environment will thrive, while our state legislators have vowed to resist any attempts by the administration to reverse the social, economic, and environmental progress we have made in our state and country. If we don’t take advantage of our favorable political circumstances here in California, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

As we witness the official upheaval of our country’s leadership, I’ve decided I’m ready to take my head out of the sand. I’m ready to do my part to ensure that the new administration is held accountable for any poor judgment and negligence that it demonstrates. I’m also ready to collaborate with anyone who, regardless of their political views, is trying to do the right thing for people, communities, and our natural resources.

That’s what really matters, and we must believe in our collective ability to succeed.