Like many San Franciscans, Justin Mazzola cares about the environment. He cooks meals at home using ingredients he buys at the Clement Street Farmers Market. He gets around The City using his bicycle. And he asks drivers who idle their cars outside his Inner Richmond home to cut emissions by turning off their engines.
“I’d at least understand someone idling to keep on the A/C or the heat,” Mazzola told me. “But in San Francisco we don’t typically get really hot or cold days, so there really is absolutely no reason to leave a car idling.”
This week marks my sixth year writing Green Space for the San Francisco Examiner, and I’ve met many San Franciscans like Mazzola during my tenure. The City is full of people who care about the planet and want others to do the same. This ethos has prompted legislators to enact a gamut of laws, from car idling regulations to plastic bag bans. But contaminants keep flowing into our environment.
Perhaps this is a sign lawmakers need to consider other avenues for change. “Greening” individual behavior has raised awareness and helped push the market. But such rules are best combined with policies requiring corporations to turn off their engines of pollution too. That’s the goal of new waste legislation being drafted by Supervisor Connie Chan. If successful, the new law could help clean The City’s beaches and sidewalks in the same way policies that increase electric vehicle adoption help clean the air.
I’ve written about the plastic crisis frequently in this column. Despite laudable victories, such as The City’s 2018 plastic straw ban and San Francisco International Airport’s plastic water bottle ban, the battle against single use items is never ending. During the pandemic, plastic bags, containers and gloves have proliferated because city leaders believed industry’s unsubstantiated claims that disposable is healthier and safer.
This needs to change. San Franciscans should refuse unnecessary waste, use totes and thermoses, and support city efforts by letting the Department of the Environment know when businesses use plastic bags and straws. But the industry that’s wreaked havoc needs reform too. This is Supervisor Chan’s goal.
“We hope that by making corporations pay their fair share they will start to think about their profit margin and change their direction,” Supervisor Chan told me at last weekend’s Ocean Beach cleanup. “Let’s look for who’s really responsible for the pollution.”
If new local legislation requires plastic manufacturers and distributors to pay for their pollution, it would be wonderful to see this money flow to small businesses. I’ve covered the expenses San Francisco’s restaurants and cafes incur to reduce the environmental impact of napkins, takout containers and straws. This is money Nestle, Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, which are primarily responsible for such waste, should be paying instead.
Putting the burden on industry, not individuals and small businesses, is similar to environmental policies aimed at changing cars, not drivers. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all new passenger vehicles to be zero emission by 2035. President Joe Biden is also working to reshape the auto industry with the goal to make zero emission vehicles half of all sales by 2030. In response, manufacturers, such as General Motors, have committed to phasing out petroleum power.
In a world where tailpipes no longer emit pollution, people like Mazzola don’t have to feel so responsible. This is why targeting the source is important. San Franciscans need to turn off their engines and report idling bus or commercial vehicles to the California Air Resources Board. But the weight of protecting the world shouldn’t depend on these individual efforts.
Lawmakers should continue shifting the burden to industry by making electric vehicles more accessible and affordable, taxing the sale of plastic used for single-use items and supporting the federal and state Break Free From Plastic Pollution Acts. I’m looking forward to covering Supervisor Chan’s new legislation in a future column when it’s introduced.
San Franciscans deserve more opportunities to enjoy nature instead of fighting such an uphill battle to protect it. It would be great to give environmentalists an idle moment too.
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.