As plastic pollution wreaks havoc, should SF think bigger?

Newly elected Supervisor Connie Chan is ready to take on plastic industry


This year’s holiday season may look different in San Francisco. But there are still plenty of opportunities to spread cheer.

Over the weekend, my family gave Ocean Beach a little love by picking up discarded cigarette butts, pieces of Styrofoam, straws and even an old pair of dirty socks. While The City hasn’t done much to regulate clothing, San Francisco banned Styrofoam and plastic straws years ago, and also prohibits smoking at its beaches and parks. Yet, these environmental policies haven’t stopped the flow of trash.

It’s an unwelcome continuity. Corporations and manufacturers are maintaining their wasteful traditions while consumers feel like they’re wasting their time sorting. As San Franciscans know, litter is incredibly harmful to marine life and public health. Thankfully, one of The City’s newly elected supervisors wants to tackle the problem at the source.

“Any effort we can make to decrease the use of these materials really goes a long way in terms of protecting the environment,” Dr. Kimberly Warner, a lead scientist at the nonprofit Oceana, told me.

Dr. Warner is an author of a recent report by Oceana, which highlights plastic’s gruesome impact on sea turtles and marine mammals in the United States. In California, a northern elephant seal nursing a pup was found with a packing strap around her neck. On the Atlantic Coast, baby sea turtles are making plastic trash their first meals.

“You have these baby turtles just a day out of the shell taking their first steps to the ocean and they’re already gobbling up plastic into their little tiny bodies,” Dr. Warner told me. “It just breaks my heart that these endangered and threatened animals are being done in by a material that has only been around a generation.”

Unfortunately, large pieces of litter are only part of the problem. Last year, the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the 5 Gyres Institute published a study on microplastics — plastic that’s designed small or has degraded. The results are sobering. Researchers estimated 7 trillion microplastics from stormwater and 17 billion from treated wastewater are discharged into the San Francisco Bay annually.

Microplastics are associated with a range of health problems in wildlife and may cause various impacts to people, including a weakened immune system.

San Francisco legislators and entrepreneurs are working to address the problem. Besides the straw, Styrofoam and smoking bans, The City was the first to regulate plastic bags in the United States and has also adopted an ambitious recycling and composting program. Local businesses, such as Dispatch Goods, Zero and The Silo are providing takeout food and groceries in reusable containers. RePack ships products with reusable packaging.

But the trash continues to flow, primarily from the same places. This holiday season, an estimated 3 billion packages will be delivered — about 800 million more than last year. That means more boxes and plastic wrap from e-commerce giants, Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe’s. And don’t forget the goods and packaging that fill Americans’ bins year-round thanks to Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo and Nestle. The three corporations are repeatedly ranked as the top plastic polluters.

“It’s the same offenders,” Eva Holman, policy organizer with the nonprofit UPSTREAM, told me. “Even with customer outcry, they’re not changing their waste practices. We need to work with corporations to find reusable solutions.”

Policymakers should support this important work. Newly-elected Supervisor Connie Chan sees the benefit in shifting consumers away from plastic, but she also believes corporations and manufacturers need to get involved too. She is working with organizers, such as Holman, to create a working group with the goal to develop policies that target pollution and promote reuse at the source.

“It’s time to think broader,” Chan told me. “We need to tackle the plastic industry.”

Any new legislation would likely need to withstand a well-funded attack. But if successful, these policies could serve as models for the rest of the country. This would not only help build a more sustainable and reusable future, but it would also deliver another blow to the frackers and oil corporations that help produce plastic.

I, for one, would welcome any change to the holiday season that involves spending less time sorting trash.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at

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