Straw ban is fantastic but SF should think bigger and bolder

Last week, West of Pecos was pouring some tasty plastic-free margaritas. The Mission restaurant is one many establishments around The City to take straws off their menu. The Presidio also requires food vendors at their Picnic and Twilight events to provide 100 percent compostable materials. No plastic water bottles are sold, and zero plastic straws are provided.

Now, San Francisco may expand on this growing movement. Legislation introduced by Supervisor Katy Tang yesterday would ban plastic straws and enable restaurants and shops to provide goods, like forks and condiment packets, only on request. The policy builds on San Francisco’s plastic bag and Styrofoam bans and nudges us closer to our goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2020.

“San Francisco is not afraid of setting bold declarations and bold goals,” said Deborah Raphael, director of the Department of Environment. “We have to address consumption.”

From left, Department of the Environment Director Debbie Raphael, Boba Guys owner Bin Chen and supervisors London Breed, Katy Tang and Ahsha Safai announce new legislation on single-use beverage and food ware items at the Fillmore tea shop on Tuesday. (Robyn Purchia/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The new legislation step toward changing our disposable culture. But The City should continue to think boldly. Plastic’s pervasiveness borders on the ridiculous. It’s on our envelopes, wrapped around our flowers and dividing our sushi rolls. Mollie Stone’s sells pre-cut grapefruit slices in a plastic box. Coffee shops sell cracked boiled eggs in plastic cups.

The City — the planet — needs an ambitious and immediate response, and the next mayor should assume the responsibility. Building on the environmental work of past mayors, she or he has an opportunity to expand on San Francisco’s zero waste goal and set a specific target to cut disposable plastic waste by at least half.

“Whether on our zero waste goals and the modifications that have to come through or continuing to lead on climate change, I expect the next mayor to be a leader on the environment,” Mayor Mark Farrell told me.
The mayor recently pledged to eliminate The City’s carbon footprint by 2050 and increase sustainable trips to 80 percent by 2030.

“Environmental policies are critical not only for San Francisco and our residents, but they’re also a leadership opportunity for the rest of the country,” Farrell said.

Other countries are waking up to the huge impact. Last year, Kenya made plastic bags a criminal offense, punishable by four years in prison or a fine of up to $40,000. Recently, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May announced a ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton swabs as part of a larger plan to get rid of all avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

But cities in the United States must do more to tackle the problem here.

Extraction of petroleum oil and natural gas used to produce plastic contributes to climate change. Forks, bottles and containers travel on diesel-powered ships and trucks to our stores, cafes and restaurants. After we use them — sometimes only for minutes — they travel on more diesel-powered ships and trucks to Southeast Asia for recycling, or end up in a landfill.

Of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, only 9 percent has been recycled. The majority accumulates in landfills and eventually makes its way to our oceans.

Concerns are also growing over plastic’s potential to contaminate our food and drinks. Some of the chemicals used to create the material contain endocrine disruptors, which can cause significant health impacts at low concentrations.

“Ideally, using single-use and disposable plastic should be like smoking,” Brett Chamberlin of local nonprofit The Story of Stuff Project, told environmentalists gathered at West of Pecos last week. “It should have a social stigma and viewed as dirty.”

The City’s next mayor should help lead this cultural shift. Targeting plastic will fuel broader discussions on the harm its causing, and maybe even inspire the state to follow our lead as its doing with flame retardants.

Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, recently introduced a bill to protect Californians from toxic chemicals in kids’ products, mattresses and upholstered furniture. The bill builds on legislation Farrell passed last year as a supervisor.

“San Francisco sets the standard very often,” Farrell told me. “It takes leadership at the highest levels to be aspirational and set that standard.”
A broad goal to reduce disposable plastic soon sends a strong message to the state. Our disposable culture is hurting us and the planet. While itemized straw, bag and Styrofoam bans are great, we must do more. We need more stores like Rainbow Grocery, selling dry goods in bulk rather than plastic packaging. We need more restaurants and cafes to take all plastic off their menus. We need every business, from dry cleaners to nail salons, to participate.

This September, The City is hosting the Global Climate Action Summit, which will bring people from around the world together to showcase climate commitments. It would be the perfect time for The City’s next mayor to announce a plastic reduction target.

GREEN SPACE Q&A

“If you bring your own hangers to the dry cleaners, will they use them? And do you recycle the hangers? We have millions!” —Allie Herson

I can hear Joan Crawford shouting, “No wire hangers!” Not only do they reshape our clothes, they also accumulate in our tiny San Francisco homes. But the solution is quite simple. Most dry cleaners will happily accept the items, if they’re not too bent or dirty. Bring them back the next time you drop off your clothes.

Don’t get stop at hangers, though. Most dry cleaners also wrap clothes in a flimsy plastic bag. Not only is this a suffocation hazard, but it’s also terrible for the environment and your clothes. Bring a reusable garment bag with your name on it or ask that the cleaner wrap your shirts in a paper box.

Is sorting other items leaving you feeling hung up? Email more questions to bluegreenorblack@gmail.com.

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.

Robyn Purchia
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