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 Vallejo claims that fiscal constraints, along with outdated trash data, resulted in the city’s failure to reach the 70 percent requirement.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.

Oakland Agrees to Fund More Trash Removal

OZT-City-Hall

Save The Bay’s campaign to accelerate trash reduction has scored a major victory!

After a contentious month of budget hearings, the Oakland City Council approved a two-year budget at the end of June that includes significant new investments recommended by Save The Bay to keep trash off Oakland city streets and out of San Francisco Bay. Oakland funded two new cleanup crews to remove trash from illegal dumping sites and homeless encampments by adding $1.6 million to the budget, with another $150,000 for additional operations to clear stormwater-related trash from streets. The city also authorized installing full trash capture devices in storm drains through transportation and streetscape improvement projects funded by Measure KK. Voters approved that Oakland infrastructure bond endorsed by Save The Bay in 2016.

The City Council was poised to add another $350,000 for one-time costs to onboard the new cleanup crews, but deferred consideration until later this year because of a procedural hurdle. Now the challenge will be to implement these measures quickly and remove street trash that will otherwise end up in creeks and the Bay, especially as rains return this autumn.

For Oakland to demonstrate its trash reduction schedule alignment with the Regional Water Quality Control Board’s requirement, the city will have to hire and deploy the new clean-up crews, and document how much more trash they are removing. The city also needs to specify how many trash capture devices will be installed in high-trash generating areas and how soon. In September, Oakland will have to report to the Water Board whether it is close to achieving the goal of 70 percent reduction in trash below 2009 levels, or face enforcement action that could include penalties. We’ll be assessing that report along with other Bay Area cities.

How did we make trash cleanup a bigger priority in Oakland? Our community allies provided crucial support for inclusion of these trash reduction measures in the budget, especially Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), SEIU Local 1021, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). These groups have been working for years to reduce blight, improve public health, and increase quality of life for residents and working in Oakland neighborhoods.

With broad backing, our recommendations ultimately were incorporated into both the Oakland City Council President’s Budget supported by Mayor Schaaf – backed by Councilmembers Reid, Guillen, Gibson McElhaney, Campbell Washington, and Kalb – and the People’s Budget backed by Councilmembers Brooks, Kaplan, and Gallo.

This outpouring of support and the council’s positive response show again that Bay Area residents love San Francisco Bay, and want cities to make the Bay clean and healthy for everyone who lives here.

While each city’s process and politics are different, we learned a lot from Oakland that will guide our efforts with other cities that are not meeting the regional stormwater permit limits on trash flowing to the Bay:

  • Local alliances are crucial for effective grassroots pressure and direct lobbying, especially when we team with partners from beyond the traditional environmental realm.
  • Save The Bay is trusted by the news media and can generate good coverage of this issue – here is an excellent example.
  • Our technical expertise and good working relationship with the Regional Water Board staff positions us well as a credible voice on permit requirements and trash treatment options.
  • Even a small number of Save The Bay activists who show up to advocate with their local officials can have a big impact.

We’ll be working this summer and fall to help more cities keep trash out of the Bay.

Oakland targeted in bid to cut trash flow into SF Bay

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A deluge of trash is flowing through Oakland’s storm drains and depositing so much litter in San Francisco Bay that regulators are threatening to levy fines if the city doesn’t do something to tidy up.

Despite spending millions of dollars over the years on garbage cleanup, Oakland has the Bay Area’s worst record for limiting the rubbish that pollutes creeks, lakes and the bay, according to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The flow of waste violates mandates set by the board to reduce storm drain litter this year by 70 percent compared with 2009, a goal that Oakland is far from meeting. If the city is still in violation on the July 1 deadline, it could face fines of up to $10,000 a day.

“They have one of the worst problems per capita,” said Thomas Mumley, the assistant executive officer for the water quality board, which sent a warning letter to Oakland this month. “The problem isn’t Oakland. The problem is all the people who dump the trash in Oakland.”

Oakland’s public works committee, made up of four council members, met last week to discuss ways to address the issue. Mayor Libby Schaaf said recently it would cost $20 million to $25 million a year to add trash capture devices to the storm drain system and regulate illegal dumping enough to meet the 70 percent target.

“I don’t believe we’re going to meet that requirement by this July,” said councilman Dan Kalb, who chairs the public works committee and is president of Stop Waste, a countywide recycling program. “We agree, they are important goals and we have been making some progress over the years, but it’s just not enough.”

Oakland isn’t the only city struggling to comply with the regulations, which apply to the labyrinth of curbside drains, gutters, underground concrete channels, pipes and catch basins that take water off city streets and direct it toward the sea.

Last July, 26 of the 70 cities and other municipalities in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Solano counties fell short of the reduction target, which was then 60 percent.

Oakland had cut its output 44.6 percent by last year. Collectively, the Bay Area had achieved a 50 percent reduction compared with 2009 — the equivalent of a million gallons of trash.

The goals were set eight years ago after the water quality board required local agencies to measure the garbage flowing from storm drains. Regulators were concerned about the 2 million gallons of trash found bobbing in Bay Area waterways, about half of it plastic grocery bags, candy wrappers, lids, straws and chip bags.

For each city, compliance is calculated by measuring how much detritus local cleanup programs pull off the streets or out of the drains. More weight is given to the most effective measures, like installing hydrodynamic separators, which capture all garbage flowing down a drain. The amounts cleaned are subtracted from the 2009 baseline.

The crackdown is important, conservationists say, because the waste leaches toxins, flows into the bay and winds up in the ocean, where the plastic breaks down into tiny pieces that are ingested by marine mammals, fish and birds.

It was an indifferent attitude about litter, experts say, that created the enormous floating garbage patch in the North Pacific, a stew that marine biologists consider an ecosystem catastrophe.

In Oakland, where 8,000 storm drain inlets dump into a myriad of creeks, channels and the Oakland Estuary, one of the trashiest waterways is Damon Slough near the Coliseum complex.

The muddy banks were strewn last week with aerosol cans, juice bags, hypodermic needles, straws, tennis balls, liquor bottles, candy wrappers and numerous plastic bags.

“All of the trash in here is from storm drains at the Coliseum or wind blown from the parking lot,” said David Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Bay, as he stood next to the foul-smelling slough. “There are five or six creeks that all empty into this area here. It is the pathway, the water column, and it circulates all over.”

The stepped-up mandate this year is likely to trip up at least as many cities and agencies as last year, including San Jose, Richmond, Vallejo, San Leandro and Berkeley.

San Francisco is exempt from the guidelines because, unlike other cities in the Bay Area, it funnels storm water runoff into its sewer system, which removes the trash before it is discharged.

But Oakland’s failure has gotten special attention because it has a larger deficit to make up than any other city, according to a compliance summary prepared by the control board. San Jose is a distant second.

“Oakland is the largest source of trash from a city that is not close to compliance,” Lewis said. “It is heavily urbanized, right next to the bay, and the city is not doing what it needs to do to address the problem.”

Oakland spends $6.5 million a year on street sweeping and $5.5 million regulating dumping. The city also bans businesses from using foam packaging and plastic shopping bags, but workers still can’t keep up with the litter on the streets, said Lesley Estes, the city’s storm water manager.

She said 12 hydrodynamic separators have been placed in storm drains around the city, but that the devices’ price tag of $400,000 to $1 million makes them too expensive to install throughout the system.

Oakland’s strategy, she said, is to place mesh pipe screens, which must be cleaned out more often, in all of the drains not covered by the separators. Some 200 screens have been installed during public works projects in high-use areas.

Estes, who believes Oakland can reach a 60 percent reduction this year, said she’ll have a clearer picture of the city’s progress when she analyzes data after the fiscal year that closes June 30. She plans to prepare a compliance report and present it to the water quality board by Sept. 30 in the hope that regulators give the city credit for, among other things, its foam and plastic bag bans.

No additional money is set aside for storm drain cleanup in the mayor’s proposed budget for 2017-19.

“Not all other cities are faced with the same degree of issues that Oakland faces,” Estes said, referring to high priorities like fighting crime and homelessness. “The staff’s commitment to this effort is wholehearted and gung-ho, but it’s a difficult problem, and we just need to figure out the best pathway.”

A path Estes would like to avoid is one followed by San Jose, which last June agreed to pay $100 million over the next decade to settle a lawsuit by the nonprofit group Baykeeper for failing to reduce sewage and trash in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

San Jose officials, who said they settled to avoid a lengthy court battle, agreed to clean 32 trash hot spots, including homeless encampments along Coyote Creek and the Guadalupe River, at least once a year. According to regulators, there is a lot less trash emerging from San Jose since the settlement.

The storm drain proviso will only get tougher in July 2019, when Bay Area jurisdictions regulated by the water quality board will be obligated to cut garbage output 80 percent. The goal is zero waste by 2022.

The board’s Mumley said cities like Oakland could be given more time to meet the coming July 1 deadline, if they outline specific efforts to reduce trash.

“My preference would be to give them a chance to solve the problem,” he said, “but ultimately the solution has to be changing public behavior.”

 

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This article was originally published online in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 30, 2017.