Our winter rains — much as we love them — have a dark side. As all that welcome water rushes along, it picks up trash, propelling it down storm drains and into our waterways. Besides being an eyesore, trash carries toxicants and chokes wildlife. It also collects in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a Texas-sized soup of plastic and other debris between the West Coast and Hawaii.
“We’ve become more of a throwaway society, increasing trash significantly in creeks and shorelines throughout the Bay Area,” said Tom Mumley of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.
But in California, that’s about to change. We recently became the first state in the nation to ban trash in waterways. California already had anti-litter laws to dissuade people from, say, tossing soda cans and chip bags out car windows. Enforcement is a challenge, however, partly because violators must be caught in the act. The new law approaches the problem from the other end, holding cities and other entities responsible for curbing trash in storm drains regardless of who produced it.
The state ban on trash in waterways was inspired by successes in major urban areas. “LA was way ahead on reducing trash in water and the Bay Area was right behind it,” said Greg Gearheart of the State Water Resources Control Board, which put California’s ban in place. “They showed the state it could be done.” LA began regulating trash in waterways in 2001, and this year the Los Angeles River is on track to become nearly trash-free. And the Bay Area banned trash in storm drains in 2009. The region has until 2022 to get storm drain trash close to zero, and it’s already down 40 percent in local waterways.
Even so, Bay Area volunteers collected more than 230,000 pounds of trash from beaches, rivers, and streams during last year’s Coastal Cleanup Day, held annually on the third Saturday in September. Major culprits include plastic bags and styrofoam fast food containers. While convenient, they’re also lightweight and wind can blow them right out of trash cans. “Plastic bags account for about 10 percent of the trash in water,” Mumley said. Other top offenders include cigarette butts, food wrappers, bottles, bottle caps, and straws.
Cleaning Storm Drains
The Bay Area has tens of thousands of storm drains and each one can accumulate an enormous amount of trash — a recent big rain washed 43 gallons of garbage into a single drain. Ways to keep trash out of storm drains include retrofitting them with screens or traps that catch debris while letting water flow through, as well as cleaning streets more often. Simple though these fixes are, they’re still an added expense to tight city budgets, and many cities share that cost by tapping business districts to add trash cans and do extra cleanups.
Exceptions to the Bay Area ban on trash in waterways include San Francisco, which has a combined storm drain-sewer system that already captures trash. In addition, the North Bay — Marin, Sonoma, and Napa counties — is exempt from the Bay Area ban because fewer people live there. Under the new statewide ban, however, North Bay counties must keep trash out of waterways too; they have until 2026.
The Bay Area ban on trash in storm drains was “driven by awareness and advocacy,” Mumley said, explaining that nonprofits like Save the Bay helped his agency institute the regional prohibition. “Awareness is key to the politics of regulating human behavior — it increases willingness to be regulated rather than resisting.”
Banning Plastic Bags
Effective as it is to clean up storm drains, producing less trash in the first place is even better. People in the Bay Area generate less trash than the national average — roughly 2.5 versus 4 pounds per person per day — but it still adds up to a whopping 3.5 million tons each year. And even when we throw it away properly, it doesn’t always stay put. According to a 2016 World Economic Forum report, “A staggering 32 percent of plastic packaging escapes collection systems.”
One solution is to use less packaging. “Product bans can help,” said Allison Chan of Save the Bay. “Plastic bag bans lead to a dramatic reduction in trash in creeks.” San Francisco was the first city in the U.S. to prohibit stores from providing customers with single-use plastic carryout bags, and similar bans are now also in place in San Jose, as well as in Alameda and San Mateo counties. Today about 80 percent of people in the Bay Area live in areas with plastic bag bans and about 60 percent also have styrofoam bans, Chan said.
The rest of California may be about to catch up. In 2014, our legislature passed the first statewide plastic bag ban (SB 270) and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. But it’s been on hold due to a challenge from the plastic bag industry, which placed a referendum to overturn the ban on the November 8, 2016 ballot. According to a 2014 USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, nearly 60 percent of Californians support the ban.
But even if we keep storm drains clean and ban plastic bags, that still won’t be enough. A lot of trash gets into waterways via illegal dumping and homeless encampments along urban creeks. Both bypass storm drains and both have no easy solution.
“People drive out to empty spaces and dump,” said Chan, adding that landfill fees can be high and that “if people have a choice between putting food on the table and illegal dumping, they’ll choose food.” Surveillance cameras in empty lots can help, but fail to address the underlying issue.
In 2013, a quarter of the homeless population in San Jose — about 1,200 people — lived in encampments along rivers and creeks. In 2014, the city offered housing and other help to homeless people living along Coyote Creek, and closed the encampment. Then they cleaned the site, removing 618 tons of debris. The final step was blocking access to the creek with 1,500 feet of eight-foot fencing. Total costs exceeded $1 million, and this was for just one, albeit the largest, encampment in the Bay Area.
Getting our waterways trash-free by 2022 will be a huge task. “Given all the challenges our communities face, trash is not always high on the list,” Chan said. “But it should be.” And if Los Angeles can do it, we can too.
Robin Meadows covers water for the Monitor.