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Halloween can help San Francisco disrupt wasteful food packaging

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The Candy Store in Russian Hill offers a wide selection of bulk Halloween candy, including foil-wrapped chocolates and package-free candy corn and gummy worms. (Robyn Purchia/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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For better or worse, The City has sparked some major cultural revolutions. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin’s “San Francisco Sound” was the soundtrack to the 1960s Psychedelic era. In 1977, residents elected Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official voted into office, to the Board of Supervisors. More recently, roommates who couldn’t afford their rent launched Airbnb, which became the poster company of the sharing economy.

San Franciscans aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. But for some reason, we’re still conformists when it comes to food packaging, and Halloween candy is one frightening example.

Like most of America, miniature candy wrapped in Mylar and packaged in plastic is ubiquitous during Halloween. Some say these treats are safer for trick-or-treaters and make it easier to enjoy candy responsibly. Unfortunately, they also make it harder for San Francisco to reach its ambitious goal to send zero waste to landfills. All the packaging goes directly into the black bin.

No one wants to be the ghoul who bans Halloween treats to save the environment, but the pervasiveness of plastic pollution is as nightmarish as climate change. New studies have found micro-plastics in salt from the United States, Europe and China. Top scientists link discarded plastic to hormone disruption in animals. Our trash is poisoning us and the planet.

While San Francisco’s zero waste goal could combat this problem, as the San Francisco Examiner reported last week, we’re not on track to make it. Our landmark composting system, regulations and bans aren’t enough to shift the culture away from waste. We need a new bag of tricks to scare away all the plastic.

“In the spirit of zero waste, we suggest that people give trick-or-treaters small gifts with no packaging or treats that have environmentally-friendly packaging,” advised Robert Reed of Recology, The City’s trash hauler.

Examples include mini-decorative gourds, pencils, chalk, coins, raisin boxes, native flower seeds and bamboo toothbrushes. My favorite tip from local expert Catherine Homsey’s blog, joyofzerowaste.com, is mandarins with Jack-O-Lantern faces drawn on them. These treats are both healthy and safe for kids.

But trick-or-treaters aren’t the only reason to buy goodies. For sweet-toothed San Franciscans and Halloween traditionalists, Homsey recommends treats wrapped in recyclable foil or compostable paper and sold from bulk bins — the big containers filled with scoop-able dried goods.

If only there were more bulk-bin candy options in San Francisco …

Rainbow Grocery, a mecca for package-free food, has a limited selection of foil-wrapped, holiday chocolate. A representative from Alter Eco, a sustainability-focused San Francisco company, told me they provide paper-wrapped truffles in the check-out area of Mollie Stone’s and Whole Foods.

The Candy Store in Russian Hill was the only shop I found selling a wide selection of bulk Halloween candy. Not only do their glass jars display foil-wrapped chocolates, but they also sell package-free candy corn and gummy worms. Buying the goodies wasn’t cheap, and watching the customer in front of me fill store-provided plastic bags with candy was disheartening, but at least I could fill my reusable bag with package-free treats.

Owner Diane Campbell told me reducing waste wasn’t her intention behind the store. While an environment free from toxins matters to her, she seems to care more about creating a simple, joyful, nostalgic experience than reducing plastic.

“We’ve always used compostable shopping bags, I do my best to buy local and I support the environment,” Campbell told me. “But the reason we put stuff in glass jars is because, aesthetically, it’s beautiful.”

Ultimately, Campbell’s reason for opening The Candy Store doesn’t matter. She’s providing desirable, holiday candy without Mylar and plastic. She’s making a shift toward zero waste attractive.

It’s The City’s job to make it convenient. Package-free food should be as easy to find as an Elsa costume on Halloween. Corner stores should sell bulk pretzels, nuts and candy, along with produce. Grocery stores should replace some of the pre-made, plastic-wrapped food with bulk bins. Shops like The Candy Store must not only survive, but grow.

Check out The Candy Store on Vallejo Street this Halloween. They’re having a costume contest and giving away free candy. Make sure to bring your reusable bag to collect treats.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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