By Anne Bremer
During one of our recent warm, clear, blue-skied summer days, I was walking my dog through our neighborhood park when I saw something moving from the corner of my eye. A Hot Cheetos chip bag was caught in the bushes, flapping feebly in the gentle breeze as though trying to escape. Perhaps you can relate to the series of thoughts that subsequently raced through my mind: “Who threw that there? What a litterbug! Why can’t people throw their trash where it belongs? Do people really need to buy such heavily packaged and processed snacks?”
As a friend and supporter of The Watershed Project, you probably already know that any trash in our watershed, left to the forces of wind and rain, eventually makes its way through storm drains, creeks, and culverts into the San Francisco Bay and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. On its way, the trash gathers in certain creek channels known as “hot spots.” Every year, The Watershed Project conducts trash assessments (a type of cleanup that includes measuring the amount and type of trash in a given area) at several hot spots in Contra Costa County. These trash assessments serve as a snapshot of the amount and type of trash in our watershed and, over time, give us insight into patterns and trends. The intention is to measure whether actions such as styrofoam bans or increased access to trash cans make an impact on the amount or type of trash that ends up in waterways.
The thing is, we don’t always like what the data tells us. When we last reported on the results of our trash assessments, we found that the total weight and number of pieces of trash removed from the creeks we cleaned was increasing over time. The trash problem wasn’t getting better, it was getting worse. The only bright spot was a decline in the number of plastic bags removed from one of our sites in San Pablo Creek, a possible indication that the 2016 California state plastic bag ban was working.
In 2020 and 2021, amidst the pandemic, we found ways to safely conduct our usual trash assessments by wearing masks, keeping our distance, and limiting the number of people at each assessment. The creeks, which had received less maintenance during the pandemic, were overgrown with vegetation, and County crews assisted in trimming it so we could access the creeks. We found plenty of trash, including such gems as a traffic cone, suitcase, bicycle, couch, and an entire unopened six pack of beer.
When we examined the data, we found some perhaps unsurprising results of the pandemic: we found greater amounts of PPE and single-use plastics, especially plastic bags as stores stopped allowing customers to bring their own. We found more clothing and personal care products, indicators of the greater numbers of unsheltered residents living along creeks as the financial hit from the pandemic displaced many from their homes. And the total amount of trash in our waterways is still increasing. As is the case with many other aspects of our society and our lives, COVID-19 simply highlighted trends in the trash that were present long before the pandemic, such as the lack of affordable housing in our area, the problem of single-use plastic production (not just disposal), and the disproportionate health and safety impacts on communities of color. Beginning with fossil fuel extraction, every stage of the life cycle of plastic emits greenhouse gases, and 12.6 million people in the United States are exposed to air toxins from the oil and gas facilities involved. People of color make up nearly half the population living within half a mile of a chemical facility, and facilities located in communities of color have almost twice the rate of incidents (explosion or chemical release) as those located in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Clearly, the factors leading to the increase of trash in our lives and in our watersheds are more systemic, vast, and complex than “litterbugs.” It’s time to shift our focus from individual behaviors like recycling, reusing, and disposing of trash properly (which are all great, don’t get me wrong) to more systemic and comprehensive solutions to address housing insecurity, illegal dumping, and the increase in plastic production. As we gear up for Coastal Cleanup Day next month, let’s think beyond how trash ends up in creeks and oceans–let’s remember who created it in the first place.
When I saw that Hot Cheetos bag in the park, my first impulse was to pass judgment on the so-called “consumer,” probably one of my neighbors, who had dropped it there, whether on purpose or not. What if, instead, when I saw that chip bag, I thought, “Who made that? Where’s the corporate accountability? Are companies really still packaging their products in single-use plastic? When will the government step in and take a stand?”
As I untangle it from the bushes and throw it in the trash can, I imagine a trash-free future that will be more beautiful not only because our parks, creek, and ocean are cleaner, but our neighbors, friends, and families are healthier, too.
Living in the Shadow of Danger: https://www.foreffectivegov.org/shadow-of-danger