California Communities Spend $428M Annually to Keep Trash Out Of Waterways

Posted on 30 August 2013

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By Leila Monroe

Natural resources Defense Council

Today, NRDC’s plastic pollution team released a new report showing that California communities are spending nearly half a billion dollars annually in preventing trash from polluting the state’s beaches, rivers and ocean. The $428,000,000 spent by California’s cities and towns covers the cost of six activities related to reducing solid waste in waterways: river and beach clean-up; street sweeping; installation of stormwater capture devices; stormwater drain cleaning and maintenance; manual cleanup of litter; and public education.

The report, Waste in Our Water: The Annual Cost to California Communities of Reducing Litter That Pollutes Our Waterways, surveyed 95 California communities ranging in size from just over 700 residents to over 4 million. The analysis found that, regardless of their size and distance from the ocean, these communities are collectively paying a high price to clean-up litter and prevent it from entering waterways. In a time when California cities are experiencing tight budgets, our report demonstrates the economic burden this waste creates for local governments and taxpayers and makes the compelling case for immediate action for measures that reduce this pollution. Here are examples of the Top-10 communities spending the most, compared to where that money could go:

  • Los Angeles is ranked number one in “Waste in Our Waters”, spending $36.3 million per year to keep waste out of the water. Compare this to the $216 million budget deficit faced by the city, or the $9.58 million in the Mayor’s budget for 2013-2014 to keep the number of police officers at current levels.
  • San Diego is ranked number two, spending $14.1 million to keep waste out of the water, while this year, a $20 million dollar budget deficit was filled by rescinding plans to expand police and library services.
  • After Long Beach, which is in third place, spending $12.9 million/year, San Jose is ranked fourth, with annual expenditures totaling $8.8 million while that city is experiencing a projected $22.5 million budgetary shortfall in 2013-14.
  • Oakland is ranked fifth, spending $8.3 million at a time when the city’s structural deficit is estimated at $155 million.

Map of California cities and towns surveyed in report produced by NRDC.

Unfortunately, these costs are necessary to prevent waste from polluting rivers, lakes, beaches, and ultimately the ocean. The cleanup is also necessary to prevent blight and harm to economic activity – especially tourism – that is dependent on California’s clean environment. The costs tallied in the report also don’t include the expenditures by counties or the state on these same activities, or the cost of waste management and recycling.

As part of the report’s launch, we have also created an online map of the cities that were surveyed, making it easier for users to check relevant information about their community. This map and the report are available in the newly launched Web, which is a new platform to build support for solutions that will help stop waste from polluting our communities, before it hits our city streets.


According to decades of shoreline surveys, cheap, disposable plastic packaging constitutes the largest and most harmful quantity of litter found in the environment. We discard far more plastic than we recycle or reuse. Much of it is littered or escapes the garbage or recycling bin and makes its way into our public spaces, rivers, lakes, beaches, and ultimately, the ocean. This plastic waste imposes costs on local governments and businesses, creates navigational hazards, kills birds, turtles, dolphins and other marine life, and may even threaten human health. Plastic’s durability, lightweight and low cost make it a useful material for many long-term applications. But accounting for the environmental and economic costs of using a highly persistent material for a single-use disposable item, it becomes abundantly clear that in most cases, those costs outweigh the benefits.

California needs a program to correctly assign the burden of this ever-growing quantity of plastic trash between local governments, taxpayers and plastic producers. This means stopping the problem at its source by reducing the quantity of waste produced, while expanding programs that are working, such as recycling and installation and maintenance of storm drain capture devices.

NRDC and a growing coalition of waste management, community, environmental and business groups support measures that would address the many different types of single-use plastics all at once by creating incentives for industry to use less plastic packaging for their products, to make them fully recyclable, and ensure that recycling actually happens. Increased recycling has also demonstrated to create jobs. One study shows that a national goal of recycling 75 percent of the nation’s waste can create 1.1 million jobs by 2030.

These solutions should also support California communities’ work to implement trash and litter reduction programs, including both Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plans and Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permit requirements. Los Angeles County’s TMDL, for example, requires southern Californian cities discharging into the L.A. River to reduce their trash by 10 percent each year, for a period of 10 years, with a goal of zero trash by 2015.

Go to to sign-up to add your business, agency, or organization to this pledge:

We support California programs to make single-use plastic packaging producers take their share of responsibility for plastic pollution. We call on California’s lawmakers to create a program of shared responsibility, requiring these producers to help support expanded recycling, storm drain capture device installation and maintenance, and cleanup of our streets, parks, beaches and other public spaces. We call on producers to innovate and reduce unnecessary packaging, increase reusable alternatives, and ensure that their products are fully recyclable and actually recycled at the end of their useful life.

Leila Monroe is a Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Oceans Program. This article was originally published at Switchboard, NRDC's staff blog.