San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin delivered a glimmer of hope last week when it comes to avoiding a future where there is more plastic in the ocean than fish.
“We’re working to vastly up the game on plastics, plastic management and plastic bans in the city and county of San Francisco,” Peskin told the crowd at a meeting of the local Surfrider Foundation chapter last Tuesday. The nonprofit works closely with supervisors on measures to reduce beach litter, such as plastic straws and cigarette butts.
Now, the nonprofit is working with Peskin on ambitious new legislation designed to switch the default from disposable to reusable in restaurants, cafes and delivery bags. In the future, local baristas wouldn’t automatically reach for paper cups and plastic lids. Delivery orders wouldn’t automatically come with unwanted plastic forks and plastic packs of soy sauce. In fact, services, such as Blue Apron, Caviar and Uber Eats, could begin providing dinner in reusable containers.
The details are still being hashed out. Peskin’s office wants to make transitions easy for small businesses already working to comply with the plastic straw ban San Francisco passed earlier this year. Policymakers are also in touch with the City of Berkeley, which introduced a similar ordinance in April. I was told to anticipate legislation in San Francisco in early 2019.
The promise of tackling the to-go problem is incredibly exciting. Not only is recycling not a sustainable solution, but people are sick of drowning in unwanted trash.
“In the United States, industry looks to recycling as a catch-all, when really we must stop using plastic as a single-use,” Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance of over 750 organizations and leaders, said. “It’s time for all of us to work together and demand a systems shift away from ‘disposable’ toward nontoxic reusables.”
Plastic recycling rates in the United States are projected to plummet from an already-too-low 9.1% in 2015, to 4.4% in 2018, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition. The amount of disposable goods is increasing, while recycling is becoming more difficult and expensive. Communities from Oregon to Maine suspended recycling services after China, historically the largest global buyer of recycled paper and plastic, banned foreign waste last year.
Fortunately, Recology, The City’s recycling provider, has successfully found alternative markets in southeast Asia.
“People should continue to recycle,” Robert Reed, a project manager with the company, told me.
But Recology’s ability to keep San Francisco’s recycling services alive doesn’t mean the status quo works. One of the reasons behind China’s ban was the typically poor quality of recycled goods. Through Recology new “Better at the Bin” initiative, the company is asking San Franciscans to recycle right and keep liquids, food scraps and food-soiled paper out of blue bins.
Recology, like many woke San Franciscans, also stresses the importance of reusing and refusing. Many of us already pack tote bags, reusable water bottles and thermoses when we leave the house.
As chemicals in plastic are increasingly associated with negative health impacts, including decreased sex hormones, weight gain and insulin resistance, more people are attempting to refuse disposable goods. But businesses push plastic goods on us anyway. Some delivery services provide cutlery, condiments and extra containers, even when explicitly asked to stop.
An industry been built on convenience has become inconvenient for San Franciscans sick of drowning in trash.
“Our lives are made more complicated with all of these plastic accessories,” Jared Blumenfeld, former-director of the Environmental Protection Agency Region 9 and now captain of Podship Earth, told me. “People feel guilty about having all of this plastic stuff they don’t need and they don’t know what to do with it.”
While Blumenfeld is also working with Peskin on the new legislation, the supervisor doesn’t need a lot of encouragement. Peskin sits on the California Coastal Commission, which is tasked with protecting and enhancing the state’s coast and ocean for present and future generations. If he vastly ups the game on plastics — as promised — it will only be one of ways Peskin is upholding that mission.
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.