Brake Pad Partnership

Award-Winning Legislation to Eliminate Copper in Automobile Brake Pads to Benefit Clean Water and Wildlife

Sustainable Conservation and its partners scored one of the major environmental triumphs of 2010 when Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 346 — powerful legislation that phases out copper from vehicle brake pads to make the state’s urban waterways safer for salmon and other species, save cities billions of dollars in potential environmental cleanup costs, and enable manufacturers to provide safe, reliable brakes for drivers. The legislation, and the process of developing it, shows that Californians can protect clean water and have a strong economy— and that when business, environmental and government stakeholders work together, our state legislature can approve meaningful environmental legislation.

SB 346, sponsored by Sustainable Conservation and the City of San Diego, and authored by Senator Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), requires brake pad manufacturers to reduce the use of copper in brake pads sold in California to no more than 5% by 2021 and no more than 0.5% by 2025. The bill had previously passed both houses by overwhelming bipartisan margins (70-3 in the Assembly and 31-6 in the Senate).

The bill was born from an unusual 15-year collaborative effort led by Sustainable Conservation to understand and address the environmental impacts of brake pad debris generated during the use of motor vehicles. Environmental organizations, stormwater agencies, and the vehicle and brake manufacturing industries worked together to study the science and agree on a practical way to stop this form of water pollution at the source while providing drivers with safe, reliable brakes.

All stakeholders supported the final legislation, which represents a truly momentous agreement— a victory for clean water and aquatic creatures and a victory for the businesses that provide brakes for the cars and trucks we all depend on.

The Problem

Each time drivers step on their brakes, small amounts of debris are released onto streets, into the air and, eventually, into waterways. Much of this debris contains copper. California drivers use their brakes hundreds of millions of times a day, and the cumulative impact of the copper takes a toll on the environment.

The copper that ends up in streams, rivers and coastal waters can be toxic to aquatic organisms like phytoplankton, which make up the base of the food chain and whose health affects entire ecosystems. Elevated copper levels also impair salmon’s sense of smell, making them vulnerable to predators and unable to find their way back to their spawning streams.

In their role as the enforcing agents of the federal Clean Water Act, the Regional Water Quality Control Boards in San Diego and Los Angeles have established maximum allowable limits for copper pollution in several highly urbanized watersheds in Southern California. These limits must be met no later than 2028. Similar limits are expected to be imposed soon in other urban areas across the state.

The responsibility for meeting the copper limits falls on the cities in these watersheds. Getting copper out of water once it has dissolved there is difficult and expensive. Stopping it at its principal source— car and truck brakes— is the most efficient and effective way to remove a significant component in the decline of endangered fish such as coho and steelhead, which inhabit thousands of miles of inland streams and California coastline. This approach also saves cities charged from potentially crippling costs to build water treatment facilities.

A Partnership Is Formed

In 1996, Sustainable Conservation brought together a first-of-its kind group of brake manufacturers, stormwater agencies and environmental groups to work together to determine if copper from brakes was a significant contributor to copper contamination in urban waterways, using the San Francisco Bay Area as a case study. The Brake Pad Partnership (Partnership) conducted a multi-year study into the role automobile brakes play in elevated copper levels within San Francisco Bay Area watersheds. The results of these studies indicated that copper from brakes is the single greatest contributor to elevated copper levels in urban creeks.


Once the studies were completed, the Partnership shifted to finding the best way to respond to the findings. After evaluating a number of strategies, the Partnership reached consensus that the most effective course of action would be to pursue state legislation that required manufacturers to phase out copper from brake pads. Through a complex period of discussions, Sustainable Conservation held together the Partnership, and the group persisted in working toward a version of the bill that would protect clean water for aquatic species; meet cities’ regulatory deadlines; and give the industry the time and flexibility they needed to develop, test and produce alternative brake pad materials. The result was a bill that all of the stakeholders and large bipartisan majorities in the Legislature actively supported.

SB 346 is not only a big win for aquatic species, from plankton to salmon, and for the cities responsible for meeting state and federal clean water requirements. It is also a demonstration of the validity and strength of Sustainable Conservation’s approach to making public policy, which focuses on achieving solutions rather than scoring points, common ground rather than polarization and collaboration rather than confrontation.

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