Plastic pollution: San Francisco Bay cleanup focuses on roadway trash

By Daniel Uria
Most of the trash polluting San Francisco Bay comes from the roadways and storm drains. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI
Most of the trash polluting San Francisco Bay comes from the roadways and storm drains. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 22 (UPI) -- As cities around the United States grapple with waterways choked by plastic, leaders in Northern California are taking aggressive action to keep garbage out of San Francisco Bay -- by pressuring the state to clean up the roads.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board last week issued a cease-and-desist order against the California Department of Transportation, setting specific guidelines for the agency to clear trash from city roadways -- or face thousands in daily fines.


David Lewis, executive director of Save The Bay, told UPI much of the road garbage gets swept into storm drains and ultimately ends up in the bay in dangerous amounts.

"Trash is one of the biggest pollutants in the bay and it's not coming from casual boaters or shippers," he said. "It's coming from people on the land and it's coming from the storm drain system.


"That's like a funnel that takes all the trash generated in areas like urban areas, strip malls, fast food restaurants and funnels it right into the bay."

It's a national problem. Experts say 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans and plastic bottles account for 1.5 million tons of waste every year.

'The goal is not fines'

The San Francisco water board decided to take action against Caltrans after the agency failed for years to follow cleanup rules for roads and highways.

The board ordered Caltrans to meet a series of increasing yearly guidelines, starting next year, to pick up trash on more than 2,000 acres of roads. Ultimately, Caltrans must clear trash from 8,800 acres by mid-2026 -- or face a daily fine of $25,000. Over a year, that penalty would add up to more than $9 million.

The department will be evaluated every four years beginning in 2021 to identify additional areas that must be cleared by 2030.

Lisa Horowitz McCann, the water board's assistant executive officer, told UPI Caltrans was notified three years ago it wasn't meeting state requirements to control its trash.

"The water board, after hearing there was still increasing problems and not a lot of solutions coming out of Caltrans ... eventually started discussing [the] order, which is the tool that we used in this most recent permit," she said.


The order also requires Caltrans to do more, like install controls in high-trash areas and track garbage.

Lewis said the board's crackdown and the potential for millions in fines should give Gov. Gavin Newsom and California lawmakers a "strong case" for earmarking money to meet the environmental goals.

"The goal is not fines," he said. "Solving the problem of trash in the bay requires Caltrans obeying this order and doing the work."

Growing concern over plastic

Meanwhile, Tennessee geology and hydrology professor Martin Knoll discovered this month the Tennessee River is one of the most plastic-polluted rivers in the world.

German Professor Andreas Fath found close to 18,000 microplastic particles -- smaller than 5mm long -- per cubic meter of water after spending 34 days last summer swimming the 650 miles of the Tennessee River. Analysis showed those levels were 80 times higher than those in Europe's Rhine River and twice the level of China's Yangtze River, which he tested in 2014 and 2017.

Based on the findings, Knoll points his finger at one major culprit -- plastic shopping bags. Nearly half the particles found in the study were identified as polyethylene, the chief component in such bags.


"That's the classic Walmart, Kroger shopping bag," said Knoll, a professor at the University of the South in Sewanee. "When you buy a head of broccoli that's wrapped in plastic, it's probably polyethylene. You see this stuff all over the ditches of the roadside. I think that's a big part of the problem."

Seeking solutions

Though growing pollution has been identified and steps have been taken to hold polluters accountable, experts say there's a lot more more to do. Lewis said the Caltrans crackdown is only a first step toward picking up the garbage before it gets to the bay, other state waters -- or to animals.

"Once it gets into the bay it's affecting fish and wildlife, it's affecting public health, it chokes wildlife and it poisons fish," he said, adding that there are multiple ways to attack the problem.

"They could do more frequent street sweeping; they could put storm drain inserts in; or they could work collaboratively with adjacent cities to put trash separators into the storm drain systems under the streets where storm drain systems come together," he said.

Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium's Conservation Institute, said one key to solving the plastic pollutant issue is well-known to Tennesseans.


"The most important thing we can do as individuals is to reduce the amount of new plastic in our lives," she told the Knoxville News Sentinel this month. "There are very small actions we can take -- like skipping the straw, bringing our own bags to the grocery store or filling reusable bottles. That makes a huge difference."

The Tennessee Aquarium encourages guests to sign its "In Our Hands" pledge, limit their use of plastic straws and urge local restaurants to do the same.

U.S. clothier United By Blue has launched a "Waterway Cleanup Tour" that will visit 11 U.S. cities this year. Previous tours over the last nine years have removed hundreds of thousands of pounds of garbage. The organization says on its website nearly 1.6 million pounds have been cleaned up since it started in 2010.

Some of the cities targeted for this year's tour are San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. It begins March 16 and runs until December.

"Everyone here at United By Blue is rolling up their sleeves and removing plastic bottles, Styrofoam, tires, old appliances, you name it, from creeks, rivers, beaches and streams," the brand states on its website. "We organize and host cleanups to make a measurable impact on the most pressing of environmental problems: ocean trash and plastics pollution.


"We stopped simply writing checks and started organizing and hosting these cleanups. We wanted to do our part to clean the waterways ourselves."

Latest Headlines