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.


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.


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. 

Removing a Ton of Trash… Literally

Try to imagine a ton of trash. Now imagine that trash strewn across just a half-mile section of a creek that flows to San Francisco Bay. Not a pretty sight, but that’s what 66 volunteers encountered on National River Cleanup Day at Coyote Creek in San Jose. Save The Bay, along with local community group  Friends of Watson Park collected roughly 2,350 pounds of trash from the banks of the creek, which flows alongside Watson Park.

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It was heart breaking to see the amount of trash polluting this section of Coyote Creek. Many of our local creeks flow directly into the Bay untreated, which means trash and other pollutants also flow into the Bay and its surrounding wetlands, impacting wildlife and presenting a public health threat to trail users.  Trash is a quality of life and environmental issue that has become so serious around the Bay that the Regional Water Quality Control Board – an agency that enforces water pollution laws in our region – is requiring cities to eliminate trash from their storm drains, creeks, and Bay shoreline areas by 2022. Not only that, cities have to show that they’ve made some progress and reduced trash by 40% by July of this year. That means the City of San Jose must work quickly to find innovative solutions to the trash problem we witnessed on Saturday morning. It’s not an easy task, but it’s an important one.

Events like National River Cleanup Day provide an opportunity to highlight the trash problem in our creeks and the places most in need of attention. Removing the trash is important, but the ultimate solution is preventing it from ending up there in the first place. That’s why Save The Bay has supported cities in banning plastic bags and Styrofoam, and why we are now working to keep cigarette butts out of the Bay. Check out our Pollution Prevention page to learn more about what we’re doing to keep pollution out of the Bay:


Weekly Roundup | April 19, 2013

newspaperCheck out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay.

Slate 4/19/13
Seven Spectacular Places Saved by the Environmental Movement
The first Earth Day, in 1970, was inspired by anger. The nation was a mess. Four million gallons of oil from a blown offshore well were smearing California beaches. Flames leapt from the surface of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River. Bald eagles, our national symbol, had been winnowed by hunting and chemical pollution to a few hundred breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. It’s no wonder that 20 million people took to the streets.

Tri-City Voice 4/16/13
Beyond Earth Day
Picking up a few empty bottles or planting some trees Earth Day morning has become regular duty for any Bay Area resident with a conscience. The trio below just kept going after “E Day” and shows how average people can make a big difference in our place by the Bay.  Steve Haas started volunteering with Save the Bay about four years ago. Save The Bay is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving San Francisco Bay and has been doing it for over 50 years. The management consulting and software development professional retired about two years ago and spends more and more of his free time with Save the Bay and other environmental organizations, getting out once or twice a month to assist projects at Eden Landing in Hayward and other locations on the Peninsula. The projects involve removing invasive plants, planting native species, mulching, and watering. Haas says he enjoys all of these, but especially removing the invasive plants.
Read More>>

San Francisco Bay Guardian Online 4/16/13
Warriors Arena proposal rouses supporters and opponents
Rival teams have formed in the last week to support and oppose the proposed Warriors Arena at Piers 30-32 as the California Legislature considers a new bill to approve the project, a new design is about to be released, and a trio of San Francisco agencies prepares to hold informational hearings.  Fresh off the collapse of two of the city’s biggest development deals, Mayor Ed Lee and his allies are pushing hard to lock in what he hopes will be his “legacy project.” A new group of local business leaders calling itself Warriors on the Waterfront held a rally on the steps of City Hall today, emphasizing the project’s job creation, community partnerships, and revitalization of a dilapidated stretch of waterfront.
Read More>>

San Jose Mercury News 4/13/13
Family of beavers found living in downtown San Jose
A family of beavers has moved into Silicon Valley, taking up residence along the Guadalupe River in the heart of downtown San Jose.  The discovery of the three semiaquatic rodents — famous for their flat tails, brown coats and huge teeth — a few hundred yards from freeways, tall office buildings and the HP Pavilion represents the most high-profile Bay Area sighting since a beaver family settled in Martinez in 2006. The discovery of those beavers sparked national headlines when city leaders at first tried to remove them and then backed down after public outcry.  The appearance of the furry mammals in downtown San Jose is believed to be the first in 150 years.
Read More>>

San Mateo Daily Journal 4/17/13
San Mateo moves to ban plastic bags, polystyrene
The San Mateo City Council voted unanimously to support a reusable bag ordinance, completing the regional effort in San Mateo County and parts of Santa Clara County to reduce litter.  The amendment to city code promotes the use of reusable bags as an alternative to single-use plastic and paper bags and mirrors a countywide effort.  The City Council also voted Monday night to support the polystyrene ban which will ban the use of polystyrene in restaurants and delicatessens.  Adoption of both ordinances is expected May 6 with implementation beginning June 6 in San Mateo.  San Mateo County, along with many other cities will implement the reusable bag ordinance Earth Day, April 22.
Read More>>

Oroville Mercury-Register 4/15/13
Legal action threatened if Chico adopts plastic bag ban
An attorney for the Save The Plastic Bag Coalition is threatening legal action if the city of Chico moves forward with its proposed ban on plastic bags.  The City Council is set to consider an ordinance Tuesday that would prohibit specified stores from providing single-use plastic carryout bags and require a charge for the provision of single-use recyclable paper bags. The ban is slated to take effect next Jan. 1, after an extensive educational campaign.  Attorney Stephen L. Joseph said the Los Angeles-based Save The Plastic Bag Coalition objects to the ordinance’s adoption without prior preparation and certification of an environmental impact report. In an email to the city, he said the coalition would file a petition in court for writ of mandate if the document is not prepared and request the court invalidate the ordinance.
Read More>>

Marin Independent Journal 4/13/13
Environmental group proposes hybrid levees for Marin, other bayside counties as sea rises
Fortifying the bay’s shoreline with levees fronted by restored tidal marshes is a cheaper, more aesthetic and ecologically sensitive way to protect Marin and other bayside counties from sea level rise, according to a new report by a Bay Area environmental group.  The Bay Institute’s report — the subject of a panel discussion earlier this month in San Francisco — proposes restoring tidal marshes with sediment from local flood control channels and irrigating the marshes with treated wastewater. The plan also calls for “horizontal levees” that are a hybrid of traditional earthen levees and restored marshes. The conclusion was based partly on research done in the lower Corte Madera Creek watershed.
Read More>>




Big Wins for a Cleaner Bay in San Jose and on the Peninsula

Thanks to the San Jose City Council, brighter days are ahead for Coyote Creek, which flows more than 60 miles to the Bay. (Photo by Dawn Ellner)
Thanks to the San Jose City Council, brighter days are ahead for Coyote Creek, which flows more than 60 miles to the Bay. (Photo by Dawn Ellner)

Yesterday was an exciting day for Save The Bay’s multi-year efforts to rid the Bay of trash. San Jose’s City Council voted 9-2 to move forward with an ordinance to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam) food ware. Once implemented, San Jose will be the largest city in the country to ban this creek-clogging, wildlife-choking product!

Two years in the making, this is a big win for the Bay and especially San Jose’s Styrofoam-clogged Coyote Creek. Running more than 60 miles from the Diablo Range, through Morgan Hill and San Jose down to the Bay, Coyote Creek is one of the few remaining homes for threatened steelhead and salmon in the South Bay. The trash pollution situation had gotten so bad that the Creek was listed by regulatory agencies as a “303(d) impaired waterway” in violation of the Clean Water Act. We expect the city’s ban on polystyrene, like its recent ban on plastic bags, will have a significant positive impact on the health of both Coyote Creek and San Francisco Bay.

If the win in San Jose wasn’t already enough, the Peninsula city of San Carlos voted 4-1 on Monday night to join the regional movement to ban plastic bags! Once the city’s ban is implemented on July 1, San Carlos will join over a dozen other cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in banning this common litter item from the shores of our Bay. Its neighbor, Redwood City, will be voting on banning bags on March 11.

Over 50% of Bay Area residents now live in areas that are covered by plastic bag bans, and more than 30% of jurisdictions have bans on polystyrene. We’re going to keep working hard to ban these destructive single-use products until we stop finding them clogging our creeks, littering our shoreline and harming Bay wildlife.

Want to hear about important wins and opportunities to make the Bay cleaner in your city? Make sure you are signed up for our BaySaver Action Alerts!

Styrofoam is choking Coyote Creek

Styrofoam and other trash floating in Coyote Creek in San Jose.

On the morning of February 9th, I headed down to San Jose to participate in one of the city’s Clean Creeks, Healthy Communities cleanups on Coyote Creek, near Selma Olinder Park.  I knew the area would have trash and that it would be busy morning, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality of this day.

As we descended into the creek, it was clear that the area was a former homeless encampment.  We found shoes, clothing, blankets, utensils, and other gear necessary for survival next to a creek, but we also found a ton of Styrofoam – cups, plates, clamshells, meat trays, you name it.  It was on the banks, stuck in between branches, buried in the mud, and caught in the middle of the creek against tree branches that laid across the water.  As Styrofoam is exposed to the elements, it becomes brittle and breaks into tiny pieces, which I experienced as I tried to pluck cups and food containers out of the creek.  I definitely – frustratingly – sent many pieces downstream.

We volunteers spent hours in a 20 by 20 square foot area picking up Styrofoam and other trash, and while we left this small portion of Coyote Creek much cleaner than when we arrived that morning, there was still hours of work to be done.  A couple people explored a nearby stretch of Coyote Creek during the cleanup, and witnessed two swimming ducks who had to walk across a floating mass of trash in order to continue their trip downstream.  I saw the video and it broke my heart.

I didn’t need any convincing that banning Styrofoam in San Jose – and throughout the Bay Area – is the right thing to do for our waterways.  The San Jose City Council is voting next Tuesday on whether or not to draft an ordinance, which could be adopted by this summer.  Want to help drum up support?  Tomorrow (Friday), Save The Bay is participating in a press event with the city and other local organizations to advocate for a Styrofoam ban.  We’ll be at the Selma Olinder Park stormwater trash capture device at 10am, at the corner of Woodborough Place and Woodborough Court in San Jose.

This cleanup was a stark reminder that this isn’t just about passing bans; it’s about taking responsibility for the health of our beautiful and valuable natural resources.  Don’t we all live here because of them?

Are you a San Jose resident? Take action and tell the city council to ban Styrofoam: