San Jose Painfully Learns Litter Problems Were Not Solved By Plastic Bag Ban!

Palm trees lining streets in San Jose, California
Palm trees lining streets in San Jose, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The City of San Jose is painfully discovering that the much touted bag ban that cost residents millions of dollars in out of pocket costs and personal time did nothing to solve litter problems. An environmental group, San Francisco Baykeeper, has notified the city that intends to file a lawsuit because of the city’s failure to prevent trash and sewage from flowing into the Guadalupe River and Coyote Creek through its storm drain system and into San Francisco Bay. The lawsuit is being filed because of violations of the Federal Clean Water Act. (Rogers, 2014)

San Jose is a hot spot for trash pollution and bacterial pollution into the bay,” said attorney Sejal Choksi, program director for Baykeeper. “Its leaders have not taken care of the problem or prioritized the issue. We’ve seen the trash, we’ve measured the bacterial pollution. What they are doing is not sufficient.” (Rogers, 2014)

In response, Kerrie Romanow, director of environmental services for the City of San Jose, stated that nine catch basins have already been installed in the storm drain system to trap trash and plans are to install 20 more in the next three years. She also stated that the city has increased street sweeping and banned plastic bags. (Rogers, 2014)

San Francisco Baykeeper is a non-profit corporation whose purpose is “… to preserve, protect, and defend the environment, wildlife, and natural resources of San Francisco Bay, its tributaries, and other waters in the Bay Area.” (San Francisco Baykeeper, 2014)

After conducting a two-year investigation showing that San Jose has some of the most polluted storm water runoff of any city in the bay area, Baykeeper sent the City of San Jose a notice of intent to sue the city for failing to keep trash, fecal bacteria, and other pollution from washing into major creeks and tributaries to San Francisco Bay. (San Francisco Baykeeper, 2014)

Baykeeper claims that their intent is to force the City of San Jose to install trash capture devices and other infrastructure measures to significantly reduce polluted storm water runoff. (San Francisco Baykeeper, 2014)

Urban storm water runoff washes trash and other pollutants into gutters and storm drains that empty in rivers and creeks and find their way to the ocean without filtration or treatment. (San Francisco Baykeeper, 2014)

Earlier this year, State wildlife officials filed an environmental complaint against the City of San Jose for violating pollution laws for failing to clean up and prevent homeless encampments along Coyote Creek. According to Fish and Wildlife Lt. Byron Jones, who filed the complaint with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, “is they accept the encampments, they feel no sense of urgency to remove them, nor have they ever. It’s always been about the next cleanup. It’s never been about ending the practice of illegally camping and being in proximity to water.” (Newman & Rogers, 2014)

According to City Attorney Rick Doyle, the problem with homeless encampments is not new. In the 1990’s the city had more financial resources to deal with the problem, and encampment cleanups did not prevent the county’s homeless citizens from returning. He stated “But unfortunately, it’s a larger problem than we have resources to meet immediately.” (Newman & Rogers, 2014)

San Jose, to their credit is one of the few jurisdictions in California that conducted litter surveys before and after implementing a plastic bag ban. Results from the survey were publicized by the city and widely used by environmental groups to tout the success of the plastic bag ban. (Romanov, 2012) In a paper titled “Rebuttal of the San Jose Bag Ban Results” the authors’ challenge the validity of the litter surveys and also estimated that the cost of the plastic bag ban to San Jose residents is an additional $23 million per year. (Williams & van Leeuwen, 2013)

Similarly in another article “Bag Bans: Wrong Way To Control Litter” the author states:

Bag Bans provide a sense of accomplishment to public officials who believe that they have taken a giant step forward to making their community more attractive. Certainly, as time goes on, they see fewer plastic carryout bags in the environment bolstering that sense of accomplishment. (van Leeuwen, 2013)

But like the proverbial ostrich, these officials have buried their head in the sand and failed to see that they took a step backward instead of forward. You see, these officials should have taken the time to understand that plastic bags make up only 0.6% of all litter, and that a bag ban would still leave the remaining 99.4% of litter waiting to be picked up! (Stein, 2012) (van Leeuwen, 2013)

Municipalities and the State of California should take note of the painful and expensive lessons being learned by the City of San Jose. Jumping on the plastic bag ban bandwagon does not solve the litter problem. No one single solution will solve the litter problem. A whole array of comprehensive measures must be put in place to reduce litter and pollution from urban areas.

By jumping on the plastic bag ban bandwagon, San Jose residents are out an additional $23 million per year to bring groceries home and comply with the city’s bag ban, a solution that essentially did nothing to solve the litter problems. Just imagine how that $23 million could have been used for comprehensive solutions to really prevent pollution and trash from entering waterways and the ocean.

Let’s hope that City officials learn from this painful lesson that bag bans do not solve litter problems.


Newman, B., & Rogers, P. (2014, March 20). State files water pollution complaint against San Jose for failing to clean up homeless encampments. Retrieved from Mercury News:

Rogers, P. (2014, November 24). Environmental group to sue San Jose for sewage spills and trash pollution. Retrieved from Mercury News:

Romanov, K. (2012, November 20). Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance Implementation Results and Actions To Reduce EPS Foam Food Ware. Retrieved August 12, 2013, from City of San Jose:

San Francisco Baykeeper. (2014, November 24). Baykeeper Announces Intent to Sue San Jose to Stop Runoff Pollution to the Bay . Retrieved from San Francisco Baykeeper:

San Francisco Baykeeper. (2014, November 24). Notice of Violation and Intent to File Suit Under the Clean Water Act. Retrieved from Mercury News.

van Leeuwen, A. (2013, September 10). Bag Bans: Wrong Way To Control Litter. Retrieved from Fight The Plastic Bag Ban:

Williams, D., & van Leeuwen, A. (2013, August 23). Rebuttal of the San Jose Bag Ban Results. Retrieved from Fight The Plastic Bag Ban: