Intercepting Toxic Plastic Trash

Intercepting Toxic Plastic Trash

Victoria Schlesinger

Capture, Gyres, Lanternfish, Stormwater, Bay Area Hot Spots, Bag Bans
See-Session-PowerpointsSOE2013-cover100px2Just months from now, significant trash reduction requirements will take effect around San Francisco Bay. The aim of the requirements is to keep refuse from local municipalities from entering the Estuary, and ultimately the ocean. In a Tuesday afternoon workshop, nine presenters detailed the Bay’s troubles with trash. They covered subjects ranging from how garbage contaminates the food chain to what local cities and counties are doing to stem this pollution-laden tide.

Janet Cox, who directs the San Francisco Estuary Partnership’s (SFEP) ambitious trash capture demonstration project, opened the session with highlights from the four-year run of the project, which ended in November. With $5 million in funds, the project installed 4,003 trash capture devices in more than 60 municipalities through a partnership with cities and counties, the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Control Board, and the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association (BASMAA). Trash capture devices prevent litter from accumulating on Bay shorelines, and lingering indefinitely in our seas.

The circular currents of the world’s five ocean gyres concentrates trash. Trawls through these waters collect innumerable small particles of plastic forming a “plastic soup.” Credit: courtesy Carolynn Box, 5Gyres
The circular currents of the world’s five ocean gyres concentrates trash. Trawls through these waters collect innumerable small particles of plastic forming a “plastic soup.” Photo: Carolynn Box, 5Gyres

The trash that has already escaped into the ocean is being studied by 5Gyres, a nonprofit that conducts marine plastic pollution research and education. Since 2007, the organization has led 19 ocean voyages to the world’s five main oceanic gyres, circular currents that collect and trap trash. Of the 424 gyre surface water samples the organization has collected, 99 percent contained plastic. “What we mainly see is a plastic soup—water with suspended plastic bits—and not a plastic island or patch, as the media usually describes it,” said speaker Carolynn Box, an environmental coordinator for 5 Gyres. The organization aims to map the density and distribution of plastic particles within the gyres. In some instances they’ve documented as many as 400,000 particles of plastic per square kilometer. 5 Gyres will participate in multiple research projects in 2014, including partnering with the California Water Board and BASMAA to evaluate techniques to measure trash in storm drains, streams, and rivers, in San Francisco Bay and the Los Angeles region.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s region 9 (Pacific Southwest) staff have studied how such bits of ocean plastic affect the health of marine life. Contaminants in water are pervasive worldwide. A study by Tokyo University concluded that many pollutants have a propensity to hyperaccumulate on plastic bits at concentrations 1,000 to 1 million times higher than in surrounding seawater. While marine animals are harmed when they eat plastics, scientists are now more concerned that plastics serve as vectors for toxic chemicals to enter the food chain. EPA region 9 staff, partnering with the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, tested this idea by analyzing the tissues of lanternfish (Myctophidae) for chemicals associated with plastics. This ubiquitous group of fishes is a common meal for other marine life. Lanternfish also eat zooplankton in the upper water column, where plastic particles and trash accumulate. In samples from all 280 fishes tested, the study found traces of one or more plastic chemicals including bisphenol A (BPA), a common form of hard plastic; alkylphenols (AP), additives in plastics; and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are found in flame retardants.

The ability of plastics to dose fish with contaminants was supported by a second study conducted at UC Davis. Scientists compared the tissues of Japanese killifish, or medaka (Oryzias latipes) fed diets of fishmeal that were augmented with 10 percent virgin plastic, 10 percent marine contaminated plastic, or uncontaminated. Within two months, the fish in the marine plastics group showed higher levels of PBDEs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); the latter are both considered human carcinogens. When the group fed pure fishmeal also turned out to be contaminated, researchers learned that the high-quality fishmeal food contained cod liver oil, which is contaminated with PCBs. “There’s a synergistic effect between common ocean pollutants and their transfer via plastic into marine life,” said speaker Anna-Marie Cook, regional coordinator for EPA Region 9’s marine debris program. “It’s a toxic cocktail and a huge problem waiting for us to come up with answers.”

Part of the solution is to limit the amount of trash reaching waterways. The Bay Area has taken an aggressive step in that direction. By June of 2014, all large municipalities in the Bay Area must cut the amount of trash entering local waterways by 40 percent. The new trash reduction requirements are a stipulation of the Municipal Regional Stormwater Permits issued by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. Cities must further reduce the volume of trash in stormwater by 70 percent in 2017 and 100 percent in 2022. Top of mind for everyone is how compliance will be measured. Speaker Dale Bowyer of the SF Bay Regional Water Board said identifying and monitoring the progress of areas that generate large amounts of trash will be crucial, as will on-land assessment of trash and, eventually, measurement of trash directly in water.

Speaker Chris Sommers with the engineering consulting firm EOA, Inc. analyzed 61 factors such as population demographics and land use as part of his analysis of the Bay Area’s garbage problem. Sommers then created a trash-generation map which shows that the areas producing the most trash are residential and retail sections of low-income neighborhoods. The analysis determined that roughly 35 percent of the urban portion of the Bay Area likely needs attention, said Sommers. The other 64 percent of urban areas generate very low levels of trash and litter.

The City of Oakland has installed trash capture devices beneath city streets in strategic catchment basins to snag litter before it enters the Bay. Credit: City of Oakland
The City of Oakland has installed trash capture devices beneath city streets in strategic catchment basins to snag litter before it enters the Bay. Image: City of Oakland

Oakland faces many of the challenges Sommers’ described: 42 percent of its housing is high-density, 60 percent of its population are renters, and 18 percent of its residents live in poverty. The city has installed 12 capture devices, which resemble giant cylinders with mesh bottoms, in strategic areas such as catchment basins to capture runoff from a maximum number of acres. The >$2.9 million project collects water from 900 acres. Most of the devices are 25 feet underground and measure four feet in diameter and 19 feet deep. When the units are cleaned every six months, they have yielded up to 12 cubic yards of trash. Despite the large quantity of trash diverted from the Bay thus far, “we have a long way to go to [reach] 100 percent,” said speaker Rebecca Tuden, a watershed specialist for the City of Oakland. A disadvantage of these units is that the trash capture is not visible to the community. Oakland is also looking at other trash reduction measures, too, such as street sweeping five days a week in high trash areas.

Plastic bag bans are another popular tool for achieving the mandatory trash reductions. Napp Fukuda, deputy director of San Jose’s environmental services department, discussed the city’s successful ban almost two years after its implementation. “As the third largest city in California, and with a population of almost a million,” said Fukuda, “dealing with trash is a big challenge, but we also see it as an opportunity.” The city’s plastic bag ban affects 5,000 retail businesses and imposes a 10 cent fee for paper bags. Fukuda said his department has observed 98 percent compliance among businesses. In the meantime, the percentage of consumers bringing reusable bags increased from 4 percent to 62 percent, while 43 percent of shoppers now use no bag. The city has also observed a 59 percent decrease in street litter. San Jose’s latest plastic-reduction step is a ban on styrofoam takeout containers. The ban goes into effect January 2014 for large multi-state restaurants, and a year later for all other restaurants.

Areas generating the most trash in the Bay Area are residential and retail sections of low-income, urban neighborhoods, as shown on this draft map. Credit: Chris Sommers, EOA, Inc.
Areas generating the most trash in the Bay Area are residential and retail sections of low-income, urban neighborhoods, as shown on this draft map. Image: Chris Sommers, EOA, Inc.

In a similar effort, Alameda County implemented a plastic bag ban just under a year ago, requiring a 10-cent fee for paper bags and plastic reusable bags. The ordinance affects 1,500 businesses, including supermarkets, grocery, convenience, drug, and liquor stores. Stopwaste, the public agency dedicated to reducing the county’s waste stream, is shepherding the effort. Presenter Meri Soll, a program manager with agency, said that initial anecdotal data is positive based on inspections of 250 stores.

Another city strategy—transforming a trash hotspot into a public good—was described by Rinta Perkins, stormwater program manager for the City of Walnut Creek. A section of the city’s namesake waterway had become an illegal dumping ground and homeless encampment. With $400,000 of city and grant money, the city built a pedestrian path along the creek with signs describing the local habitat and advocating pollution prevention, as well as a pesticide-free demonstration garden. Volunteers conduct annual creek cleanups and remove invasive species. The effort has yielded a 68 percent reduction in trash in the area. With the help of partner organizations, more than 700 people and students have been educated about watershed stewardship through guided tours and outdoor watershed classrooms. “[At] what was once an abandoned site,” said Perkins, “we now see people all over.”

Trash Capture
San Jose Trash Summit
Regulating Trash in Stormwater

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Fukuda’s Slides

Napp Fukuda, City of San JoseNapp Fukuda, City of San JoseNapp Fukuda, City of San Jose



Cook’s Slides

Credit: Anne-Marie Cook, US EPACredit: Anne-Marie Cook, US EPACredit: Anne-Marie Cook, US EPA

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