Clean Roads Start with YOU: Simple Ways to Reduce Pollution

Photo Credit : Alan Dep, Marin Independent Journal

By: Vicki Dehnert

The debris you see on the shoulders of our Bay Area roads is more than just unsightly. It’s also a threat to our environment and natural habitat.  I co-founded Marin Clean Highways to help address this issue in Marin County. I’m also excited to partner with Save The Bay to highlight the failure of Caltrans—the agency in charge of our state highways—to keep Bay Area roads clean and prevent trash from polluting the Bay.

There are actions your community can take to improve areas that are not under Caltrans’ control.  In Marin County, we created a consortium, “Clean Marin” comprised of many other local organizations concerned with the environment (my organization, Marin Clean Highways, is just one of several).  By banding together, we now have a more powerful voice when we speak with our elected officials about our environmental concerns. We were so successful in growing our base of organizations that Marin County Department of Public Works now spearheads our efforts — a perfect example of private-public collaboration.

Our Successes are a blueprint for your successes.

Here are four strategies to rid your community of trash and save the Bay.

  • Push to get highway shoulder areas adopted through Caltrans’ “Adopt A Highway” program.

Keep a close eye on the adoptee areas—we found a few were underperforming with minimal cleanups and asked Caltrans to intervene. We are happy to report that things have improved.

  • Sound off about illegal unsecured loads being carried in the back of pickup trucks.

Debris spills out of trucks daily, and although state law requires loads to be secured, the law is often not enforced by local CHP due to workforce shortages. Our community is looking at ways to raise funds needed for hiring off-duty CHP patrol officers to specifically enforce these laws. Also, through our efforts, our local waste management company allows us to distribute tarps and educational materials to unsecured trucks entering their facility.

  • Rally local businesses and residents to raise funds that will help remove weeds and trash from highways and frontage roads.

In Marin County, many of the frontage roads to Highway 101 are full of trash and weeds. Marin Clean Highways raised funds from businesses and residents to contract with the San Rafael Downtown Streets Team to pick up frontage road litter on a weekly basis. What a difference this has made!

  • Attend city and county meetings to let your elected officials know how important clean highways are to your community.

In recent years, city and county budgets were pared down, and litter cleanup is not a priority. Share your sentiments and concerns with elected officials that serve your community.

We have a long way to go to get the clean roads and environment we want. But when we work together, across the nine Bay Area counties, our local success, however small, can become something much greater and help make the Bay Area better.

As Co-Founder of Marin Clean Highways, Vicky Dehnert is on a mission to reduce trash pollution across the Bay Area. She is a former educator who switched gears to high tech. Vicky has called Marin home for the last eight years.

Turning Trash into Something Beautiful: How Artists Richard and Judith Lang Fight Plastic Pollution

 “Judith is absolutely the most generous, open-arms-to-the-world person. But when we’re out on the beach looking for trash, she is ruthless (laughs).

“No, no! That’s not true!”

“She’ll find a beautiful piece of plastic, look back at me, and just wag it in my face!”

Teasing aside, Richard and Judith truly enjoy their fierce competitions to find the “rarest” piece of plastic on the sand. In fact, it’s their way of making up for lost time together.

On their first date in 1999, Richard and Judith discovered something startling: for the last three years, they’d both been combing North Bay beaches for plastic trash, turning their hauls into artwork – without ever crossing paths.

They’ve now spent just under 20 years scouring the same 1,000 yards of Kehoe Beach together. Richard says there’s a good reason why they rival each other to find the most compelling plastic. “One has to make a game of this … or you could fall into a deep pit of despair.”

Indeed, “despair” got them started in this line of work. Judith was teaching art at the College of Marin, and she often ate her lunch on a bench facing Richardson Bay. But she was saddened to find the “lovely view of San Francisco” obscured by “plastic debris that would wash in.” One day, Judith started collecting some of that plastic and turning it into art – her way of transforming waste into something beautiful.

Richard had his “a-ha” moment when he was building a nine-foot sculpture out of aluminum for his M.F.A project at the University of Wisconsin. “At the end of it, I was in great despair because the U.S. had just celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970, and I attended at the National Mall, and I was aware of what was going on in the planet, and I thought: ‘I’m using all these materials — for what?’”

Now, like Save The Bay’s plucky Restoration team, Richard and Judith brave “blazing heat and blistering cold” as they work to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the way they know best. The couple also embodies Save The Bay’s spirit of collaboration, hashing out every idea until they feel strongly about the same vision. Judith admits this can entail a bit of “stomping around the house,” but the end result is well worth a little tension: “we both sign our names on every single piece we make.”

Their teamwork certainly bears fruit: the couple’s artwork has been showcased in more than 70 exhibitions across galleries, museums, and educational centers. During Save The Bay’s Bay Day celebration last year, the Langs donated a big pile of plastic so that people of all ages could try their hand at turning trash into art. Judith and Richard were delighted to hear that: “people took to it immediately – no instruction needed.”

Judith and Richard are always glad to see these scraps transform, as the artists believe deeply: “if you don’t give style to something painful, you’re just going to depress yourself.” Indeed, humor has been the driving force in their work on plastic pollution.

As Judith puts it, “we joke that we’re the world’s smallest NGO and we’re not even that well-organized. We’re just people who’ve devoted their lives to 1,000 yards of beach.”

 

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.

Powerful Results, Positive Trends: California’s Bag Ban One Year Out

A little over a year ago, California voters became the first in the United States to approve a single-use plastic bag ban. With the passage of Proposition 67, Californians took a stand to protect our state’s diverse and fragile environmental systems from being further harmed by plastic bag litter. One year later, we are proud to say that the ban has been successful in reducing the amount of plastic that reaches local waterways and harms wildlife and water quality.

Data from Coastal Clean-Up Day shows that there has been a 72% decline in plastic bag litter from 2010, and plastic bags now account for only 1.5% of total litter compared to 10% seven years before. Furthermore, it cost the state $400 million, or about $10 per resident, to clean up littered bags prior to the ban.

Far from going unnoticed, California’s plastic bag ban set a trend. Hawaii decided to implement its own statewide bag ban, and municipalities across Massachusetts and Washington have taken the same step to protect waterways and wildlife. While many states have yet to follow our example, Californians should be proud of the fact that we have proven ourselves once again to be leaders in protecting both local and global waters from toxic plastic pollution.