'Save the Bay' Unveils Annual List of Most Polluted Local Waterways

September 14, 2009

As the San Jose City Council prepares to vote this fall on whether to ban plastic and paper shopping bags, a new study being released today underscores the growing problem of plastic trash in Bay Area waterways, including Coyote Creek.

The creek, which runs through parts of unincorporated Santa Clara County as well as Morgan Hill, San Jose and Milpitas before emptying into San Francisco Bay, is among the Top 10 "Bay Trash Hot Spots" of 2009 named in the study by Save The Bay.

The environmental advocacy group's fourth annual list of polluted area waterways was compiled based on the number of plastic bags volunteers removed from those sites during last year's Coastal Cleanup Day. All told, 184 tons of waste were collected from the bay, including more than 26,000 plastic bags. About 1,100 bags were collected from Coyote Creek alone.

Save The Bay estimates that 1 million plastic bags end up in the bay annually.

"On that day alone, 15,000 bags were removed from just these 10 spots," said David Lewis, executive director of Save The Bay. Countless others, he said, blow and wash into creeks and storm drains that carry them into the bay.

Lewis is asking Bay Area mayors to prioritize legislation that would end the distribution of free single-use bags, both plastic and paper, and require residents to switch to reusable bags.

"I think the support for this is very strong in San Jose," Lewis said.

Last month, a four-member San Jose City Council committee agreed to push forward on a proposed ordinance directing major grocery stores and big-box retailers to stop giving out plastic bags. Paper bags made with mostly recycled materials would be allowed, but only for a fee. The council has asked city staff to study the issue before drafting an ordinance.

Mayor Chuck Reed said the city should "work together with the entire county on some sort of uniform ordinance. San Jose alone can't solve this problem."

In the Bay Area, only San Francisco and Palo Alto have enacted plastic-bag bans.

Representatives from the plastics industry said they agree that plastic bags should not end up in the waterways, but they say calls for a ban are misguided.

"Plastics don't belong in the oceans or the watersheds, they belong in the recycling bin," said Keith Christman, senior director of market advocacy for the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council.

But Lewis of Save The Bay said recycling plastic bags doesn't work. He points to a California Integrated Waste Management Board estimate that less than 5 percent of all single-use plastic bags in the state are recycled "A lot of it ends up in landfills," he said.

Christman points to a different study that suggests municipal bans on plastic bags only lead to consumers using more paper bags, which he says require massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions to produce.

Lewis said people can judge the scope of the problem themselves by volunteering for Saturday's Coastal Cleanup Day, which is organized by the California Coastal Commission. The event takes place from 9 a.m. to noon at sites around the state; for more information, go to www.coastal.ca.gov.

To read Save The Bay's Top 10 list, go to www.savesfbay.org

Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-275-0140.

• Albany-Berkeley-Emeryville shoreline (Alameda County). Bags removed: 7,497
• Antioch Shoreline (Contra Costa County). Bags removed: 478
• Belden"s Landing (Solano County). Bags removed: 591
• Burlingame Bayfront to Mills Creek, Millbrae (San Mateo County). Bags removed: 784
• Candlestick Park (San Francisco). Bags removed: 750
• Coyote Creek (Santa Clara County). Bags removed: 1,100
• Mare Island Straight (Solano County). Bags removed: 400
• Richmond shoreline from Shimada Friendship Park to Point Isabel (Contra Costa County). Bags removed: 2,252
• Ryder Park (San Mateo County). Bags removed: 384
• Warm Water Cove (San Francisco). Bags removed: 542

(Note: Not every section of the Bay watershed held Coastal Cleanup Day events in 2008, and some sites did not report trash data.)
Source: Save The Bay