Bulk shopping is back, and that’s a good thing

Self-service is safe, but sustainability still elusive during pandemic



Bulk shopping is back in San Francisco. Late last month, after almost a year, The City finally lifted the suspension on self-service bins — provided stores follow signage and sanitizing station requirements.

“We’re excited to have our bulk access back and have our customers be able to buy the quantities that they need,” Cody Frost of Rainbow Grocery in the Mission District told me.

Before the pandemic, Rainbow’s bountiful bulk department offered customers an opportunity to scoop their desired amounts of flour, tea leaves, rice and other goodies into reusable containers. At checkout, clerks weighed the containers and offered a small, but appreciated, $0.05 discount. It was a great system for fans of saving money and reducing waste.

Now that The City has allowed the department to open again, customers can get back to scooping. But San Francisco’s new health order still discourages the use of reusable items. Containers are only allowed if no one else, including at checkout, will touch it. The City also asks businesses to consider providing disposable serving scoops or other utensils. This means stores, such as Rainbow, will have to come up with some creative solutions to accommodate personal containers and maintain compliance with city rules.

Instead, it would be better if health officials lifted regulations on reusable. Scientific research doesn’t support these broad restrictions. And sending a message that disposable is safer can have long-lasting impacts on San Francisco’s ability to meet its waste goals and promote a reuse economy. City officials should seize the opportunity to build on the exploding consumer demand for reusable products and encourage the practice again.

“It’s a mystery that the local health departments are being so slow to reverse these orders,” said Miriam Gordon, program director at UPSTREAM, a nonprofit that works to make throw-away go away. “We understand the need for a precautionary approach, but the science just doesn’t show that reusable products will make people sick.”

The restrictions stem from the outdated concern that people can contract COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces. At the start of the pandemic, researchers found the virus could persist on plastic and steel for days. The plastic industry, conveniently ignoring the details of this research, conjured scary stories of germ-filled reusable products. Unfortunately, The City listened.

Today, we know that the risk of contracting COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces is very low. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that this route is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads” and San Francisco’s health orders also recognize that COVID-19 is mostly spread from person-to-person through the air. While The City permitted reusable bags again last July, it still treats containers and cups as scary and unsafe.

San Francisco’s approach is not only anti-science, it could also have lasting impacts on the war against our throwaway culture. There are ample studies highlighting the risks disposable items pose to health and the environment. San Francisco used to combat this concern by encouraging customers to bring reusable containers to grocery stores and cups to coffee shops — a practice that takes time to develop. The current health guidance not only hinders this practice, but promotes an inaccurate message that disposable is healthier.

Fortunately, this disturbingly anti-science approach hasn’t stopped an explosion of reusable take out and grocery services in San Francisco during the pandemic. But it’s hard not to wonder what our bins would look like had local health officials not set the movement back.

“The growth of the reuse industry could have been greater but for the regulations that propelled a false narrative that reusable is less safe than disposable,” Gordon of UPSTREAM told me.

The City’s decision to allow bulk shopping is a positive sign San Francisco is following the research. Hopefully, containers and cups will soon follow, and the glory days will return at Rainbow Grocery.

“No doubt we will get back to other safe, sustainable practices,” Charles Sheehan with the San Francisco Department of Environment told me. “It just takes the latest science, a little bit of patience, and an ability to adopt and do right by the environment. That’s the San Francisco approach.”

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 robynpurchia.com.

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