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.

Bay Pollution and the World’s Oceans

Plastic Pollution on Malaysian beach
Plastic trash washed up on a beach in Malaysia. Trash flowing out of San Francisco Bay and into the Pacific Ocean can make its way to distant shores. Photo by: epSos.de

Spanish explorers once called San Francisco Bay el brazo del mar, “the arm of the sea.” Highlighting this connection with the world’s oceans is even more appropriate in our time, as we observe the impact of plastic pollution flowing from the Bay out into our oceans.

While Save The Bay advocates for a healthy Bay, plastic pollution contributes to a global trash problem. Toxic plastic trash can make its way from our streets into our waterways and ultimately out into the ocean via the Golden Gate. Now consider the geography of our region – a heavily populated metropolitan area surrounding the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas – and you can imagine the scale of this issue.

The largest source of pollution in the Bay is from runoff from city streets, much of which is trash. In most Bay Area cities, this trashy runoff flows directly into the Bay untreated.

Into The High Seas

How does our trash fit into the bigger picture of ocean pollution? Well, consider this: Humans worldwide release between 5.3 million and 14 million tons of plastic into the ocean annually. Nine million tons of plastic is the equivalent of 136 billion plastic milk jugs – which would stretch more than halfway to Mars if stacked up.

This is all the more deplorable, as scientists tell us plastic may never biodegrade. Moreover, the average use time of a plastic bag is only 12 minutes, but a single bag can continue polluting the oceans for hundreds of years. In that time span, discarded pieces of plastic can gather in one of five ocean gyres, where strong currents act as shredders, causing these massive, floating heaps of gathered plastic to be reduced to countless smaller particles. These micro-particles of plastic can become coated with toxic substances like PCBs before they are ingested by smaller marine organisms. Researchers are concerned that fish that consume the plastics could reabsorb the toxic substances and pass them up the food chain.

Each year, Californians throw away 123,000 tons of plastic bags and many of them end up as litter in our oceans. Currently, 100 million tons of trash are in the North Pacific Gyre, while in some parts of the Pacific, plastic exceeds plankton 6 to 1.

Plastic Bay

Do you know that a study found an average of three pieces of trash along every foot of Bay Area streams that lead to the Bay? 90 percent of trash in our waterways does not biodegrade.

But this is not all the result of throwaway bags – plastic food and beverage containers such as polystyrene foam are some of the most ubiquitous trash items fouling the Bay and local waterways. Even when placed in trash or recycling bins, these lightweight items are often picked up by wind and blown into the gutters – where they flow into creeks and storm drains and then into the Bay and the ocean. Polystyrene foam is the second most abundant form of beach debris in California.

Another ubiquitous trash item is the cigarette filter – toxic, plastic trash that contains dangerous chemicals and heavy metals including lead, chromium, and arsenic. In one study, a single cigarette filter in a liter of water killed half the fish living there. Over 7 million people live in the Bay Area, adding up to an estimated 3 billion cigarettes littered in the Bay Area each year. During Coastal Cleanup Days, these make up nearly 40% of all litter by item.

Think Globally, Act Locally

Think of the ripple effect environmental legislation has had in the Bay Area. Think of our string of “firsts.” One bag ban has led to another – and as plastic pollution is ultimately a global problem, our actions may inspire governments of the other regions and countries to do the same. Toxic trash is a big issue and will take all of us.

Here’s what you can do to prevent toxic trash from flowing into the Bay and out into the ocean:

  • First and foremost, don’t litter.
  • Participate in community cleanups, like Save The Bay’s volunteer events.
  • Pick up trash when you see it in the street or at the Bay shoreline and creeks.
  • Support policies that will reduce the amount of trash discharged to the Bay.
  • Use less. Bring your own cloth bags when you go shopping and your own cup for coffee drinks.
  • Let businesses you patronize know that you care about litter. Ask them to offer reusable alternatives, and make sure their trash cans outside are not overflowing!

Guest Post | Greening Santa Clara

Santa Clara is finally moving forward with plastic bag and Styrofoam bans.
Santa Clara is finally moving forward with plastic bag and Styrofoam bans.

Sudhanshu “Suds” Jain retired from designing chips in 2008 to work on Climate Change.  He volunteers for Acterra, Sierra Club and Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

On March 18, 2014, the Santa Clara City Council voted unanimously to direct staff to prepare ordinances for both a single-use carryout plastic bag ban and on a ban on expanded polystyrene (EPS = “Styrofoam”)  foodware containers. Santa Clara is one of very few cities in the Bay Area which still don’t have plastic bag bans. I’m irked every time I go to the supermarket in Santa Clara and see that 90% of the people mindlessly have their groceries placed in single use plastic bags; most people just seem to be on autopilot and oblivious.

In 2012, San Mateo County completed an environmental review for a countywide plastic bag ban that cities in Santa Clara County were invited to participate in. By joining this effort, cities would have legal coverage to pursue a bag ban. As a Santa Clara resident, I was disturbed by the fact that Santa Clara didn’t join the San Mateo County group EIR even though it would have cost the city nothing and wouldn’t have obligated the city to implement a ban.

I’m currently a Sierra Club Cool Cities leader and have an email distribution list of about 30 people who are interested in greening Santa Clara. In preparation of the March 18th vote, I emailed often to this list encouraging members to write letters to Council and to come to the meeting. I also emailed to some distribution lists and teachers at my son’s previous schools.   I got wind that the stopthebagban.com folks were going to come to the meeting and ask that the bag ban be put on the ballot for a vote. I countered at the meeting that the vote wouldn’t be a fair fight because we’d be vastly outspent. What really seems to have clinched the vote was the large turnout of Girl Scouts and one very brave 5th grader.

The fight isn’t over yet. Once staff has prepared the ordinances, Council has to vote to adopt. I encourage all Santa Clara residents to watch “Bag It” and then come to the meeting to show that there continues to be strong community support for joining neighboring cities in eliminating plastic bags.

– Sudhanshu “Suds” Jain

Drought: Rain fell, but where did the water go?

Rain fell, but where did it go?  Photo Credit: Brandon Doran
Rain fell, but where did it go?
Photo Credit: Brandon Doran

The past week or so brought much needed rain to Northern California. But where did all that water go? Unfortunately, here in the Bay area most of it ran out to the Bay through the storm drain system, carrying trash and pollution with it.

There is a disconnect between how we manage water for flood control, quality, and supply. The goal of flood control systems is to remove water from our roads and urban areas as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this water is carrying a significant amount of pollution with it, degrading water quality in local waterways and the Bay. We are also experiencing a drought, and yet we are allowing runoff from our city streets to flow through our storm drains and out to the Bay rather than putting that water to beneficial use.

Flooding

Before we urbanized the landscape of Northern California, rain water soaked into the ground where it fell, recharging groundwater. Now that the land is covered in impervious surfaces like asphalt and buildings, our cities have created a network of storm drains to carry water from our urban streets to nearby creeks that flow out to the Bay. However, flooding still occurs when trash, leaves and other debris clog storm drains, or when the local waterways become overwhelmed by the sudden and drastic increase in water flowing in from storm drains.

Pollution

Because of the risk of flooding, storm water policies have focused on removing water from city streets and urban areas as quickly as possible, which means water flows directly into the waterways without treatment. As a result, pollutants like heavy metals, oils, pet waste, and trash are carried by the storm water into our waterways. This is why Save The Bay has prioritized stopping trash pollution at the source, working with cities and counties throughout the Bay Area to ban plastic bags and Styrofoam. We have also turned our attention to cigarette butts which are commonly littered on streets and sidewalks near storm drains.

Beneficial Use

There are better ways to prevent our urban areas from flooding than sending all the water, and the pollutants picked up along the way, out to the Bay and ocean. We depend on the streams and rivers of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to deliver water to the entire state even though rain falls throughout the state. The state of California is facing both a drought and groundwater depletion; we should be thinking more comprehensively about water supply solutions.

As water simply soaks into soil, pollutants are filtered out. This clean water then soaks into our groundwater system, replenishing water that we remove through wells and pumps. Homes have gutter systems that remove rooftop water and direct it out of a single pipe. If this pipe drains onto an impervious surface like a sidewalk or driveway, the water will run into the storm drain. If the pipe drains onto dirt or grass, the water is soaked into the ground, replenishing groundwater. Better yet, this water can be captured in barrels to use for watering plants during dry days. On a larger scale, the same concepts can be used for larger buildings and structures, or larger pieces of land like city parks. Another option is to create more permeable space, including paving streets with porous asphalt, green roofs, and more open space like parks.

Luckily, California legislators and policy makers are currently working to address the many water related issues facing the state, and are taking a more comprehensive approach. For example, Senator Wolk’s water bond bill, SB 848, includes $500 million for storm water capture and reuse projects. These projects are essential to improving water quality and can increase water supply. We’ll have to wait and see what decision makers will agree upon to address the significant water issues facing the state, but one thing is for sure; doing nothing is no longer an option.

 

Stormwater is the Largest Source of Bay Pollution

Storm drain clogged with trash and debris.
Storm drain clogged with trash and debris.
Photo Credit: Mike Dillon.

Storm drains prevent flooding by draining excess water out of our neighborhoods, streets, and highways and carrying the water through pipes and culverts to nearby creeks that lead to the Bay.

Unfortunately, a lot more than just clean rain water flows to the Bay through our storm drains.  Last week a clogged plastic sewer pipe in Sausalito caused more than 50,000 gallons of raw sewage to spill into San Francisco Bay.  The sewage ran across the sidewalk, into a gutter, and down a storm drain that leads to the Bay 40 feet away.

While incidents like this happen from time to time and generate coverage in the news, storm drains carry toxic pollutants and trash into the Bay literally every time water flows through them.

Contaminants

The recently released “Pulse of the Bay” report found chemicals like pesticides, insecticides, and flame retardants in San Francisco Bay at levels that could pose hazards to aquatic life.

Pollutants enter the Bay through a variety of sources, including wastewater treatment plants, factories, and agriculture.  But according to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, stormwater is now the largest source of surface water pollution to Bay area waters.

Much of this pollution comes from our streets.  Cars discharge harmful metal particles like lead, zinc, and copper, and leak more oil into the Bay each year than the Cosco Busan oil spill did in 2007. Even the streets themselves contribute directly to the pollution problem.  Asphalt is held together with “recycled” petroleum products and waste from refineries, byproducts that would otherwise require safe disposal.  These toxic substances and the sealants used to coat paved surfaces leach into our waterways over time.

Trash

At this year’s annual Coastal Cleanup Day on September 21st, volunteers got to see first-hand how trash enters the Bay through our storm drains and creeks.  First Flush, the first big rain of the season, washed trash from the streets right into the creeks and wetlands we were cleaning up.

Some streets and highways are so full of litter that storm drains become clogged with trash and other debris, resulting in flooding.  Caltrans spends $50 million each year picking up litter on the streets, and has invested more than $5 million in the last five years to improve drainage on Highway 101 and I-80.

Plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers are some of the biggest offenders, which is why we’ve prioritized plastic bag and Styrofoam bans throughout the region over the past several years.  Recently we’ve turned our attention to the nearly 3 billion cigarette butts littered in the Bay area each year.  We’re investigating the best local policy options to address the largest single source of litter in the Bay area.  In the meantime, we’re also calling on tobacco companies to take responsibility for the toxic litter they produce.  Sign our petition to tell tobacco companies – Keep you butts out of our Bay!

Learn more about water pollutants and how you can help keep our Bay clean and healthy.