With grocers closing their bulk food sections, and The City allowing stores to use plastic bags during the COVID-19 outbreak, it is more difficult to maintain an environmental ethos. Courtesy photo

Green Space: Ways to stay environmentally conscious during the pandemic

Protecting public health can seem more important than reducing plastic these days.

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Last week, San Francisco resident Lindsey Hoell delivered hand sanitizer to clinicians at California Pacific Medical Center’s Van Ness campus. Like other San Franciscans who have donated masks and cleaning supplies, her effort helped first responders get the equipment they need during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Hoell’s delivery was also beneficial for the planet — the containers of hand sanitizer were reused.

“It feels so good to repurpose plastic,” Hoell, who is also the CEO of Dispatch Goods, a service that usually partners with restaurants to provide reusable containers for takeout and delivery, told me. “These containers were supposed to be single-use, but are now finding new utility.”

Protecting public health can seem more important than reducing plastic these days. Even in environmentally conscious San Francisco, shoppers are buying more disposable cleaning wipes, masks and gloves. The plastic-free, bulk food section at Rainbow Grocery is closed during the pandemic. City officials un-banned plastic bags, claiming they were safer for people than reusable totes.

Fattening our black bins may feel necessary. But San Francisco should maintain the ethos that has made us such a resilient city. The upheaval we’re witnessing is a reminder that cooking, repairing, and repurposing are handy skills when access to food supplies and goods is more difficult. Instead of viewing public health and environmental protection as exclusive goals, San Franciscans should look to the waste in our homes as essential to both our safety and well being, as well as the planet’s.

For example, without dine-in restaurant service and catered tech lunches, Recology, The City’s recycling and composting provider, is depending on San Franciscans to fill up our green bins. The compost from our coffee grounds and banana peels goes to nearby vineyards, farms and orchards, and also benefits the environment. Studies have shown that spreading a thin layer of compost on agricultural fields can help capture climate-change causing carbon from the atmosphere.

But while the best compost comes from food scraps, yard trimmings and organic materials, wipes soaked in cleaning solution, paper towels and disposable masks and gloves are also filling up The City’s recycling and compost bins, according to Nik Balachandran, CEO of Zabble. The business provides software, so institutions and corporations can monitor their zero waste programs, and is now helping medical organizations and businesses identify protective gear shortages and potential contamination.

When trash goes into the wrong bin, it contaminates the waste stream. Balachandran recommends using cleaning rags instead of paper towels and reusable masks. There are numerous guides online about making masks from old t-shirts and socks.

“Cleaning supplies and protective gear should all go to the landfill,” Balachandran told me. “Don’t waste the opportunity to switch to reusables where you can.”

This was Hoell’s mindset when she decided to repurpose disposable hand sanitizer containers. Her service, Dispatch Goods, already has access to vans and a commercial-grade dishwasher, so switching to provide clean, reusable hand sanitizer containers wasn’t a challenge. Hoell and her associates collect empty bottles from households in San Francisco, the East Bay and Marin, clean and sanitize them (twice) at their facility in Daly City, fill them up with new hand sanitizer brewed at San Francisco’s Seven Stills and drop them off to caregivers and clinicians in need.

“We already had so many checks and balances to make sure dishes make it through the correct cycles,” Hoell told me. “I’m happy that we have the opportunity to keep moving. I want people to feel safe with reusables and it’s nice that we could get our hands on a supply people want.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced San Franciscans to think deeply about our wants and needs. When it’s no longer easy to grab coffee in a to-go cup and access paper towels, drinking home-made brew from a mug, composting the grounds and cleaning with rags can become our new normal. Maintaining these habits into the future can significantly reduce our waste. And imagining new ways to use our old goods also helps people and the planet get what they need.

Check out more opportunities to care for the environment by participating in San Francisco’s new virtual Climate Action Month.

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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