San Francisco said so-long to Styrofoam years ago. In 2016, the Board of Supervisors found that between 8 to 15 percent of plastics in City storm drains are polystyrene packaging and to-go ware. Supervisors determined the almost-impossible-to-recycle material is a hazard to the environment, and dangerous for human health.
Although the vote to ban Styrofoam was unanimous and has been in effect since 2017, Barbara Applegate still regularly picks up chunks of the crumbly material on Richmond sidewalks.
“This ban does not appear to have any effect in my neighborhood or anywhere in the City that I shop,” Applegate told me. “Is there no way to prevent Styrofoam from entering The City?”
There are things San Franciscans can do. Polystyrene that still shows up in our City primarily comes from places where it hasn’t been banned yet. Broader, state-level regulations would force more businesses to find better alternatives. In May, Maine became the first state in the country to ban polystyrene. If California follows, there would likely be less Styrofoam in the City.
But there is another way we as individuals can and should spur change — make it clear that we don’t want businesses to use Styrofoam, or other wasteful products.
Government regulations can only go so far; especially, when the bans aren’t paired with enforcement. People need to pick up the slack. We need to refuse unnecessary forms of waste and speak up when we want businesses to change.
At the Thursday farmers’ market in the Financial District’s Crocker Galleria, for example, it’s impossible to tell that plastic bags are banned in both San Francisco and California. They’re everywhere, catching the light beneath the glass atrium and propped on tables beneath hand-painted umbrellas. Every stand gives them out for free. Almost every customer has one or two in their hands.
“We have to give them something,” a man selling produce told me when I asked why he continues to provide free plastic bags. “If we don’t give customers something to put their stuff in we lose business.”
According to the law, stands at the farmers’ market are only permitted to give customers reusable-grocery or recycled-paper bags for a $0.10 fee. The fee will increase to $0.25 in San Francisco next year. Legislation introduced by Supervisor Vallie Brown and signed by Mayor London Breed earlier this month was passed to further reduce the impact our waste will have on the planet.
But it’s hard to imagine anything will change at the Crocker Galleria farmers’ market until the people demand it. San Franciscans need to push businesses to be better.
It’s a burden we shouldn’t be forced to carry. Californians voted to ban plastic bags in 2016. We elected legislators who placed bans on plastic straws and Styrofoam. Most of us remember to bring tote bags and reusable water bottles. Some, like Applegate, even take time to keep sidewalks and streets litter free. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to get individual businesses to follow the law as well.
If we don’t step up, however, businesses will continue believing they’re breaking the law to give us what we want.
A group of activists who wish to remain anonymous want to help people speak out. This week, they launched an Instagram handle, @stillsuckinginSF. San Franciscans are encouraged to post pictures to the handle when they see restaurants and stores using banned materials, such as plastic straws, plastic compostable straws, plastic bags and Styrofoam.
“We think it’ll inspire more businesses to make the right choice,” one of the activists told me.
Businesses want to make us happy. They want to make sure the packages they ship arrive intact and ready for us to use. They want to give us something to make it easier to carry our carrots and peaches home. Most small businesses don’t want to force people like Applegate to clean up their trash. We should let them know it’s ok to change.
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