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.