Zero waste is a lofty goal. But in the pre-pandemic days, San Francisco was inching closer. Leaders were passing necessary bans on plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam. More San Franciscans were using reusable bags, thermoses and water bottles. Businesses were providing coffee in mugs and cloth napkins with meals.
City leaders suspended these victories — at least, temporarily — when they ironically deemed plastic bags and disposable containers the cleaner choice.
“We had made such progress over the past 10 years,” Eben Schwartz, outreach manager for the California Coastal Commission, told me. “Now, I’m hearing about a large uptick in the amount of plastic bags and disposable foodware on the beaches.”
Of course, this is what industry lobbyists want. Eager to reverse the tide of bans, plastic proponents conjured a scary story about “millions of Americans bringing germ-filled reusable bags” into stores. San Francisco’s leaders fell for the hysteria and prohibited reusable items, although studies have shown the virus causing COVID-19 can persist on plastic for days and multiple people touch disposable goods.
While the city of Berkeley and Alameda County now permit customers to use reusable bags and mugs, San Francisco’s leaders remain gaslighted. In fact, they updated guidance on Monday to clarify that reusables are still prohibited, while promising to reopen salons and bars soon. Their decision hurts the environment and small businesses. Fortunately, some restaurants are getting creative and at least one supervisor is ready to talk trash about disposables again.
Moving back toward zero waste could help San Francisco’s businesses. Rainbow Grocery in the Mission, for example, thrived on providing food, supplements, medicinal herbs and spices in self-service bulk bins. When COVID-19 cases began to spike, the worker-owned co-op closed its scoop bins. Eventually, city officials forced Rainbow to close all bulk access, including anything that pours.
Now, the grocery store is spending more on labor, infrastructure, single-use containers and bags. Typically, Rainbow used about 18 bundles of bags a week. In April and May, that number increased to 60 — roughly $3,500 a week more.
“It hasn’t been fun,” Cody Frost, Rainbow’s marketing coordinator, told me. “We’re eating costs on the backend because we’ve chosen not to charge customers. They are being limited by The City’s ordinances just as much as we are.”
Restaurants are also eating costs. Since opening the first Little Chihuahua over 12 years ago, Andrew Johnstone has worked to reduce waste. The local chain, which received the Surfrider Foundation’s “Ocean Friendly Restaurant” distinction, provided reusable foodware for dine-in and encouraged customers to bring their own bags. Now, it’s only offering takeout.
“Our container costs have doubled,” Johnstone told me. “Compostable items are a very expensive piece on the bottom line.”
Some restaurant employees are scared to return to reusables, according to Joycelyn Lee, CEO of San Francisco’s Burma Superstar, B-Star and Eats. But she got creative. To address her staff’s concerns and reduce waste, Lee partnered with San Francisco-based company Dispatch Goods to offer food delivery from B-Star in reusable containers.
Lee believes the model should be adopted on a larger scale, given the demand for sustainable options in San Francisco. If The City adopts a municipally-run, reusable delivery service by partnering with Dispatch Goods, it could reduce restaurants’ costs and create jobs.
“It’s possible to keep everyone safe and be ecologically responsible,” Lee told me. “Restaurants could purchase or rent reusable containers from The City. Restaurant customers could eat out of them and put them in a fourth bin for collection. The City would then pick them up, sanitize them, and provide them again.”
It’s this outside-the-container thinking that moved San Francisco closer to zero waste in the pre-pandemic days. But until our leaders stop falling for the plastic industry’s lines, San Franciscans will be forced to spend more money simply to litter our beaches and streets. Thankfully, Supervisor Aaron Peskin is ready to make some headway toward zero waste again.
“The reusable bag ban was the result of industry-funded pseudoscience,” he told me. “We cannot allow special interests to exploit a pandemic to undermine successful environmental protections, and we must resist their efforts and keep San Francisco at the forefront of a zero waste future.”
Can we please begin dusting off our totes now?
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