Cooperatove Conservation Project

Brake Pad Partnership

Partnering for Results

Location: Far West Region: California

Project Summary: Working together, the Partners are developing the science needed to understand the potential role of automobile brake pads in surface water quality and develop responses as needed.
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The disc brake on an electric vehicle. Phot by Kelly Moran
Resource Challenge

High levels of copper detected in urban runoff can have serious effects on aquatic life.  In 1994, urban stormwater managers in the Santa Clara Valley looked at the problem and estimated that up to 80% of the copper in urban runoff to the South San Francisco Bay, for which copper is a pollutant of concern, comes from automobile brake pads.  Lacking the ability to regulate brake pad ingredients, the stormwater managers sought to work with the industry collaboratively and turned to Sustainable Conservation--an environmental nonprofit that develops partnerships with business to solve environmental problems--for help.

Sustainable Conservation brought together all the key parties to explore the issues raised by the urban runoff study.  Through this process, the participants uncovered serious flaws in the study and found that they had fundamental disagreements about how brake pad wear debris might be affecting the environment.  They also learned that brake pad manufacturers were preparing to increase their use of copper in response to federal safety regulations and associated customer satisfaction requirements.  Since 1998, the use of copper in automobile brake pads has increased nearly 90 percent, which has raised concerns about the potential role of brake pad wear debris in the health of the Bay. 

Despite their differing perspectives on the issue, all stakeholders agreed to work collaboratively to determine if copper from brake pads is a significant contributor to copper contamination, using South San Francisco Bay as a case study. 

Examples of Key Partners

Sustainable Conservation; Brake Manufacturers Council Product Environmental Committee; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Bay Area Association of Stormwater Agencies; Sierra Club; CLEAN South Bay; California State Water Resources Control Board; San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board; San Francisco Estuary Project; Bay Area Association of Governments. 

Nonprofit and private financial contributors have included:  Association of Bay Area Governments; Bay Area Stormwater Managment Agencies Association;  Brake Manufacturers Council; California State Water Resources Control Board; City of Palo Alto; City of Petaluma; City of Sacramento; City of Sunnyvale; David H. Liu Foundation; Educational Foundation of America; Endicott Charitable Lead Trust; Ford Motor Company Fund; Fred Gellert Family Foundation; General Motors Corporation; Lisa & Douglas Goldman Foundation; Pacific Gas & Electric Company; San Francisco Estuary Project; San Francisco Foundation Bay Fund; Santa Clara Valley Urban Runoff and Pollution Prevention Program; Switzer Foundation; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Vallejo Sanitation and Flood Control District.

Results and Accomplishments

The Partnership has developed a framework of agreements in which its work is grounded.  As a part of the partners' commitment to working together, they all have agreed to refrain from pursuing litigation or legislation.  In addition, the brake pad manufacturers have committed to introducing new products within five years if the Partnership finds that copper from brake pads is a significant source of copper impairment in the San Francisco Bay.  The manufacturers also report annually on copper usage in brake pads in new vehicles through a voluntary reporting process that protects their proprietary interests.

Working together, the Partnership has developed and published a reproducible laboratory protocol for generating brake wear debris, and carried out physical and chemical characterization tests.  They have also collected stormwater monitoring data and atmospheric deposition data in the study watershed.  All of this information is now being used to develop and run environmental transport models that will tell us what contribution, if any, brake pads make to copper concentrations in the San Francisco Bay.  This collaborative research is supported by a $700,000 grant from the State of California Water Resources Control Board.


The Brake Pad Partnership is an innovative model for how business, environmentalists, and government can address environmental issues and differences in perspectives through collaboration. In the Brake Pad Partnership, uncommon partners are pooling their energies and resources into developing the scientific information they all need, rather than fighting one another through dueling science and costly litigation.

Project Contact
Connie Liao
Project Manager
Sustainable Conservation
121 Second Street, 6th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105
415-977-0380 x336
Sarah Connick
Associate Director
Sustainable Conservation
121 Second Street, 6th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105
415-977-0380 x314

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