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Outreach coordinator for Northgate Neighbors Nathan Moon, 46, helps fill a dumpster with an unhoused volunteer, Robert. (Photo by Natalia Gurevich)

Thousands compete in the Battle for the Bay litter pick up

on September 24, 2019

Oakland has a trash problem.

So on Saturday, during what was dubbed “The Battle for the Bay,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and San Francisco Mayor London Breed challenged each other over which city could turn out more volunteers to pick up the most trash during California’s 35th annual Coastal Cleanup Day.

The stakes were high: The winner must host the losing mayor at a volunteer event in their city. The loser has to wear a jersey from the winning city’s sports team.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo entered the competition a little late in the game. He announced joining in a press release less than a week before the event. The last-minute addition to the competition didn’t faze Schaaf. “Bring it on,” she said by phone a few days before the event. “Oakland may have half the population of San Francisco and at least one third of San Jose, but we have more pride than those two towns put together.”

Liccardo seemed to be pretty confident in himself and his city’s chances. Schaaf said after Liccardo saw her and Breed announce the competition at a press conference, he texted them that they would “Look great in Sharks teal.”

This week’s battle was actually a bit of a rematch between San Francisco and Oakland. Twenty years ago, former mayors Willie Brown of San Francisco and Jerry Brown of Oakland challenged one another over which city could clean up more trash from the bay in an event called “Brown Plus Brown Equals Green,” said Sean Maher, the public information officer for Oakland’s Public Works and Transportation department. The competition was friendly, and there was little news coverage. No official winner was declared, according to a department spokesperson.

But in the two decades since, Oakland’s trash problem has not improved. If anything, the problem is getting worse. Illegal dumping doubled from fiscal years 2011-12 to 2015-16, estimates Maher. He estimates that the department gets around 30,000 calls about illegal dumping each year.

In San Francisco, the number of illegal dumping calls jumped from just under 45,000 during the 2015 calendar year to more than 70,000 in 2017, according to San Francisco Department of Public Works data.

Since both cities are facing similar challenges, this year’s battle was planned to draw new attention to the issue, said Maher. At least 55 cleanup sites were chosen throughout Oakland, said Maher, with one additional cleanup site scheduled for the day after. Volunteers were outfitted by site coordinators with trash bags, gloves, metal grabbers, t-shirts and hats.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf prepares to pick up trash around the banks of Lake Merritt at Channel Park. (Photo by Natalia Gurevich)

On Saturday Schaaf, wearing rainbow oak tree earrings and her long hair tucked into an “Oakland Proud” baseball cap, gamely began picking up trash at Channel Park by Lake Merritt with other volunteers instead of weeding in another section, because, she said, “as mayor, you have to take the unpopular tasks.”

Judy Luck and Keith McGovern came out to volunteer at the park this year because they had heard about the cleanup on the Channel 2 news. McGovern said they spent the morning picking up items such as “a booze bottle not filled with booze,” and were astonished by the “hundreds of cigarette butts,” that they found.

In the blazing morning sun, dozens of volunteers either used metal grabbers to gather detritus scattered in bushes along the banks of the lake or knelt in the dirt weeding and planting new specimens. Common items found included cigarette butts, dirty clothes and McDonald’s wrappers. One volunteer lamented not being able to grab items floating in the water, such as a large blanket, and mused about coming back another time with a kayak. Schaaf’s biggest haul was a full-sized lawn chair retrieved from the edge of the water.

Nathan Moon, the outreach coordinator for Northgate Neighbors, a community group that Moon said covers the area from 35th Street to West Grand and from the I-980 freeway to the lake, hosted a cleanup in his neighborhood, as well.

His group, which had nearly 20 volunteers this year, collaborated with members of the neighborhood’s unhoused community to clear away trash and make sure it was properly disposed of. Moon and his volunteers spent their morning cleaning up litter and even a few dead rats from a small camp under the I-980 off of 25th street, while making sure not to disturb people’s personal belongings.

Lataesha Shaw, who lives nearby, said this is her first time volunteering for Coastal Cleanup Day. Shaw said she was motivated to volunteer this year by a variety of factors, including growing fears about climate change and the environment. She said she was disappointed by how dirty her neighborhood was becoming. “Just clean up after yourselves,” she said.

Eben Schwartz, the outreach manager for the California Coastal Commission’s public education program, was out helping clean up litter at Channel Park. The commission’s public education program hosts conservation and restoration activities throughout the year, along with the annual Coastal Cleanup Day. He said that he hoped they would actually break a record “for the least amount of trash picked up,” because that would tell him that their strategy has been working this year.

Maher said that Oakland’s Public Works and Transportation department plans to continue the momentum gained from the three-city battle with a new illegal dumping awareness campaign, which set to roll out in the next couple of months. “Fundamentally resolving and improving the illegal dumping issue,” he said, “requires a sustained, strong partnership between the city, other public service providers, and the communities that we are working for.”

And on Monday, the results were in: Oakland came in first with the most trash collected, at 109,460 pounds. San Francisco was second at 70,163 and San Jose third at 36,414. But San Francisco had the most volunteers, with 3,011, followed by Oakland at 2,170, and San Jose at 1,311.

In the spirit of sportsmanship, the contestants declared it a three-way win. According to a press release issued Monday, all three mayors have agreed to a day of service in each city while wearing that city’s team’s sports apparel.

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