Compostable straws are great, but they’re no zero waste unicorn

Eva Holman, an anti-plastic crusader for the San Francisco Surfrider Foundation, recently spent an hour gathering trash at Ocean Beach. She was giving a talk at a local middle school and wanted to show kids how plastic damages the environment. After only one hour, she had picked up 72 straws. She was frustrated, but not only because she had proved her point.

“I lined up all the straws and could not tell which were compostable and which weren’t,” Holman told me.

Compostable products are gaining popularity as San Franciscans look for ways to reduce waste without reducing consumption. Restaurants are replacing straws derived from oil and gas with straws derived from cornstarch. Leftover food and take-out is piled into wheat fiber containers instead of Styrofoam. By going compostable, businesses are diverting money away from fossil fuel companies and waste away from landfills.

Make no mistake, these goods are a better environmental choice. But they’re not a silver bullet. There is no magical product we can use once and toss without hurting the planet and ourselves. Litter on the beach, whether it’s made from petroleum or plants, is still bad. To-go containers also contain chemicals that may make us sick, according to a recent study.

“We’re trying to get less toxic and benign materials out there, but they’re still having an impact,” Samantha Sommer from the nonprofit Clean Water Action told me. “And they’re more expensive.”

Compostable straws and forks aren’t like banana peels and coffee grounds. They only break down if San Franciscans put them in the green bin. Recology, The City’s trash provider, has the capability to turn these products into compost farmers can use instead of harmful fertilizers. Many other trash providers in California and around the country don’t have the same technology.

But it’s hard to tell a compostable straw from a non-compostable one. If San Franciscans make a mistake and put compostable products in the blue bin, Recology doesn’t recycle them. If compostable packaging is sent to landfills or left on beaches, it does not fully degrade.

A study released last week by the Center for Environmental Health also raises concerns about additives in compostable products. To keep to-go containers dry and firm, manufacturers use chemicals to repel water and grease. Not much is known about these chemicals, but similar ones may increase our risk of cancer, thyroid disruption and reproductive disorders.

“We are concerned about these products both from a human health and environmental perspective,” Sue Chiang, one of the study’s authors, told me. “New research shows the additives can disrupt our hormones.”

Chiang was quick to point out research on these compounds is limited. But San Francisco’s Department of Environment is following it closely.

“It’s a reason in terms of playing it extra safe that you should go reusable,” Jack Macy, the environmental department’s commercial zero waste senior coordinator told me. “Bring your stainless-steel cup. Bring your own container. Eat in.”

It’s also a reason to reconsider what is necessary. We often don’t need a straw to drink water. San Franciscans rarely need disposable utensils and napkins delivered to our homes. If we had to pay extra for a paper coffee cup, more of us would use a mug or thermos. There’s no reason to waste money on products we barely use, especially if they’re unhealthy for our beaches and bodies.

Last September, the Alameda City Council passed an ordinance requiring businesses to make compostable straws available to customers only on request. Staff acknowledged these goods can be more expensive. But they told councilmembers if businesses only had to provide straws when asked, instead of automatically, they could save money.

City leaders should look at a similar program in San Francisco. Businesses here want to make sustainable choices; that’s why many restaurants, bars and delivery services already provide compostable straws, cutlery and to-go containers. If San Franciscans can “opt-in” to receiving these products, businesses could save money while protecting the planet and people’s health.

“The cool thing about opt-in programs is they can allow consumers and businesses to step back and make a choice instead of a knee-jerk reaction,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the former director of the Department of Environment and now captain of “Podship Earth,” available Feb. 18 on Apple Podcasts.

Compostable products have their benefits. But to reduce waste, San Francisco must reduce consumption. There is no reason to litter our beaches, compromise our health or cough up cash for straws, cups and containers we don’t want or need.

“The applicators in Seventh Generation’s organic tampons are 95 percent plant-based. Should I put them in the green bin? Are they recyclable?” — Anonymous

Good question! Products labeled “plant-based” and “back to nature” confuse a lot of environmentally minded San Franciscans. In fact, California law prohibits manufacturers from labeling plastic products “biodegradable” and restricts the term “compostable” to plastic that meets specific requirements. While the plastic in Seventh Generation’s applicators are made with sugar cane instead of petroleum, they aren’t compostable or recyclable. Put the applicators and tampons in the black bin. Don’t flush them down the toilet.

Still confused? Email me more sorting questions at

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at

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