SANTA CRUZ. Bean Creek Road winds its way through the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, flanked on one side by a steep hillside and on the other by a steep gorge. An imperceptible muddy slope offers a breathtaking view of the emerald treetops. But if you move your gaze down, you will see a much bleaker picture: discarded furniture, mattresses, rusted car parts and debris falling into the stream below.
This confusing mess is one of the thousands of illegal landfills polluting California’s communities.
Now, deeper analysis shows that illegal dumping has increased in the Monterey Bay area during the pandemic. As rubbish piles up on street corners and rural back roads, communities are scrambling to find ways to strengthen law enforcement and develop prevention programs. The nationwide trend towards privatization of waste management exacerbates the problem.
Back on Bean Creek Road, the neighbors complain when they spot pickup trucks and even U-Hauls in place. Nobody wants their community to be used as a dumping ground.
“It’s not just Santa Cruz County, we’re not special at all,” said Bo Hawksford, the county’s zero waste analyst. “This is happening more across the country, if not around the world.”
There are more than 50 sites repeatedly littered with waste, like the one at Bean Creek, scattered across unincorporated parts of Santa Cruz County, Hawksford said. He acknowledges that there are likely others that the county is not aware of as they rely on community complaints to find them.
In nearby Monterey County, which borders the National Marine Sanctuary, illegal dumping has also increased during the pandemic, said Ted Terassas, sustainability manager for the Monterey Department of Community Development. In 2020, cleanup was halted due to uncertainty about the spread of COVID-19, and unwanted trash piled up and multiplied.
The problem can be seen in the growing piles of discarded tires and construction debris polluting the Paharo River from Gilroy to Watsonville. And in piles of broken furniture and decayed mattresses behind the abandoned barracks at Fort Ord.
“Cleaning up landfills is important not only for environmental health reasons,” Terassas said, “but also because landfills signal neglect and encourage new landfills.”
According to the Monterey County Department of Solid Waste, the annual cleanups are on the rise. Based on complaints filed with the Monterey County Public Works Service, over 700 garbage collection requests have been filed in the past two years, which is roughly the equivalent of a complaint every day. The Garbage Brigade works seven days a week and cleans up between 150 and 200 tons of garbage annually.
Why is this a problem
According to Hawksford, there is nothing unusual about the unfortunate scene at Bean Creek. Canyons and ravines above streams are common dumping grounds, as are exit roads in rural areas with poor surveillance or bystanders.
Gorges are also the most difficult and costly to clear, often requiring a crane and a large crew due to the difficult terrain. A single facility cleaning can cost over $100,000, according to Hawksford.
These landfills are not just an eyesore. Many discarded items release toxic chemicals such as PFAS, pesticides and phthalates. These chemicals can permeate across the California watershed through storm runoff and waterways, and through soil into aquifers.
“All of these canyons connect to our coastal waters,” explained Teresa Talley, Coastal Specialist with the California Sea Grant Extension. “Accumulation of rubbish and rubbish [in them] and when it finally rains, it just rinses off.”
Sunlight breaks the plastic into smaller pieces that can be eaten by wild animals, and small pieces are easily carried away by rain and wind. Mattresses and couches are transformed into strips of fabric and padding that can entangle plants and animals, suffocate sea turtles, and trap songbirds. Flame retardants in mattresses seep into soil and water, as do toxins from discarded tires. Sunlight only exacerbates the problem by destroying and releasing more chemicals. For example, painted wood can contain PFAS, long-acting chemicals that researchers have linked to a host of health problems in humans and animals. Ultimately, all of these pollutants run the risk of ending up in the Pacific Ocean or in aquifers that provide drinking water.
People throw away trash for a variety of reasons, which makes it particularly difficult to address this problem.
The problem is exacerbated by poverty and inequality, which have been exacerbated during the pandemic. In low-income areas where high housing costs lead to overcrowding, trash cans are often overflowing.
Adding to the problem is high turnover in crowded conditions, according to San Jose City project manager Amory Brandt, who has studied illegal landfills as an indicator of social unrest. When people need to move quickly, they can leave mattresses and furniture on the streets, in alleys and on lawns. Residents who don’t speak English may be left with no resources on how to dispose of their trash.
“I tell my neighbors about the junk or bulky item collection program, and almost every neighbor I tell about it doesn’t know about it,” Brandt said. “I’m just so surprised because I feel like we’ve done a great job of promoting the program.”
But not only people resort to landfill to throw away unnecessary furniture and things. It’s not uncommon for contractors to drive their truck into a ravine and dump waste from job sites, according to Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Karen Tandler, who works for the Environmental Crime Unit.
According to Inspector Jim Gordon of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office of Environmental Crime, enforcement of illegal dumping laws is not easy. Gordon has worked to end illegal dumping for over 36 years. Those arrested at the crime scene are usually charged between $250 and $1,000, although repeat offenders may pay more. Instead of being charged with a misdemeanor, as happens in neighboring Oregon and Nevada, the California burial is currently only citable. Gordon said this actually increases the likelihood that violators would prefer a fine over law enforcement.
“We have people who just take shortcuts out of laziness or greed,” said Doug Kobold, executive director of the California Food Control Board, speaking at a statewide conference on illegal dumping in April. With more than 30 years of experience fighting illegal dumps, he said the lack of facilities and the high cost of disposal discourage people from taking their waste to the right places.
In rural areas, it can be even more difficult to access affordable recycling options. Although Monterey and Santa Cruz County have a dozen landfills and waste collection points, communities farther from the city may have to travel up to an hour to get rid of old mattresses, broken appliances and other trash.
What is being done
Communities across the state are fighting illegal landfills in many ways, but the decentralized nature of waste management makes the solutions more difficult.
Recognizing the crisis, the state legislature is considering more than 75 solid waste-related bills, an unprecedented number. These bills aim to address the problem from several angles, including increasing fines for offenders, increasing surveillance, and making manufacturers more accountable for recycling.
A case of illegal dumping of garbage by a municipal roadworks contractor into a creek prompted Contra Costa County Assemblyman Bauer-Kahan to propose bill AB2374, which would increase criminal penalties and revoke business licenses from offenders.
In Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, waste management agencies have developed programs designed to make it easier to dispose of particularly toxic and bulky items. Their landfills now accept used mattresses and electronics for free, and each family can request free pickup of bulky items up to four times a year.
Despite the urgency to tackle illegal dumping, the solution to the problem is a frustrating paradox. Landfill and waste collection fees are used to pay for cleaning and collection programs, but if they are too expensive, people may resort to illegal methods.
“How much can we raise our fees to cover these costs before someone just goes and dumps it on the side of the road? That should be enough to recoup our costs,” Hawksford said.
Santa Cruz County will need to double its current annual budget, from about $500,000 to $1 million, to effectively crack down on all illegal landfills, Hawksford said.
This problem is exacerbated by the recent trend towards privatization of landfills, which allows owners to inflate prices. In the absence of competition from other nearby sites, private landfill owners have no incentive to keep costs affordable for the public.
“It’s hard to find landfills at the moment,” Kobold said. “And so the competition has somewhat diminished.”
The shift to profit-making landfills won’t change anytime soon, and in the meantime, cities and counties across the state are forming task forces to deal with the growing piles of trash in their communities. Waste managers, environmental health experts and sheriff’s departments are stepping up information collection and dissemination programs and tightening enforcement, Kobold said.
But sustainability experts and waste managers agree that one of the best ways to address waste mismanagement is to reduce the flow of waste at the source. Agencies such as the California Food Management Board are working to shift the burden of recycling and responsible disposal to manufacturers. For example, the Council is currently working with legislators on a bill that would require battery manufacturers to run free battery collection programs statewide.
“When you put the cost burden on manufacturers, they are more likely to improve their product,” Kobold said. This means that their products must be more durable, more recyclable, more repairable, or more recyclable.
“If it stays on the taxpayers,” he said, “then these manufacturers will never change their methods and there is no reason for them to do so.”