Most Bay Area cities are trying to staunch the flow of trash into the bay through storm drains, but some cities are leading the pack. Richmond has already reduced 80 percent of its trash entering storm drains, thanks to a mix of trash bans, trash-filters and community projects.
“The City of Richmond has made a lot of progress,” said Allison Chan, associate director of policy at the nonprofit Save the Bay, an advocate of reducing trash pollution. “Of the cities that have been most successful, they’re the ones that have the political support for complying.”
The efforts date back to a 2009 permitting program provision created by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which requires cities to stop trash from entering the bay through storm drains by 2022.
Much of the trash entering the bay is litter that was blown or carried by rainwater into storm drains, said Chan. Roadside storm drains are designed to divert water from roads into creeks, which then flow into the bay. But because this water does not pass through a sewage treatment plant, any trash that enters the drains can make its way directly to the bay—and then the Pacific Ocean.
A large portion of the trash entering the bay contain plastics that don’t break down readily in the environment. Common items include tobacco waste, food packaging and take-out containers.
Which is why Richmond responded to the 2009 provision with a number of laws to keep such items out of the city’s drains. In 2010, the city banned Styrofoam take-out containers offered by restaurants. In 2013, it banned the sale of Styrofoam products altogether, along with plastic bags. A new ordinance set to go into effect in December will ban businesses from providing plastic straws and stirrers, too.
Last year, the city also installed two trash capture devices, one upstream of Meeker Slough and one in Parr Channel. The devices, installed in underground storm drain pipes, trap pieces of trash when water flows through them. The city claims the systems capture waste carried in storm water runoff from 963 acres of land, including part of Interstate 580.
The devices are expensive to install, said Zachary Rokeach, a water resources control engineer with the SF Water Board. They are also challenging to site, he said, because the ideal location is where they capture the most trash for their cost.
And once cities install them, he said, “they’re left with the moderate areas,” where trash still enters creeks but not at a high enough volume to merit a capture device.
But Richmond’s approach to storm drain trash involves more than just laws and engineering. The city’s Love Your Block program funds residents’ local cleanup and beautification projects in both incorporated and unincorporated Richmond.
“The premise is that it’s their vision,” said Stephanie Ny, Love Your Block program director. “They get to be the leaders in this.”
In one project, 90 participants removed more than 3,000 pounds of trash during seven cleanup events in North Richmond.
But Ny said residents are now pressing for more long-term solutions, too.
“Just picking up trash to them means that the next day, there’s going to be more trash there,” she said, “which is often the case.”