Plastic shotgun wads, used to separate the shot from powder, litter beaches. (Courtesy photo)

Plastic shotgun wads, used to separate the shot from powder, litter beaches. (Courtesy photo)

It’s too early to ban environmentally-damaging shotgun shell components

On Baker Beach last week, Anna Kauffman picked up 23 pieces of plastic, similarly shaped like small blooming flowers, in only 20 minutes. The pieces were spread across the sand and tangled in reeds.

At first, Kauffman guessed the litter was coming from champagne bottles. Now she knows they’re shotgun wads that appear on San Francisco beaches in great numbers this time of year.

“Some hunting seasons correspond with the rainy season,” Kauffman, a volunteer with the local
Surfrider chapter, told me. “Hunters shoot over water and deem the wads, which land between
20 to 40 yards away, irretrievable. Then the tides flush them out and they turn up on The City’s

Although Kauffman would like the flow to stop, she doesn’t blame hunters. Generally, hunters
understand healthy ecosystems are essential to wildlife populations and their experience. Many
switched to using non-lead ammunition before regulations required their use. Unfortunately,
cardboard or felt disks — used to separate the shot from the powder — don’t work
well with steel ammunition alternatives.

While plastic shotgun wads offer a solution, they are also environmentally damaging. According
to data Kauffman and others have mapped on Surfrider’s website, beaches around the world
are littered with wads. They leach chemicals into the water and land, and harm wildlife.

Policymakers are responding to the plastic crisis by enacting comprehensive bans, such as the
European Parliament’s prohibition on single-use plastics and Berkeley’s new ordinance
requiring reusable or compostable foodware. These important regulations stop unnecessary
waste streams and curb mindless consumption.

But a plastic shotgun wad ban doesn’t make sense — at least, right now. While it’s generally
possible to sip soda without a straw, a ban on wads would act as a ban on hunting and
shooting. The necessity of some single-use plastics underlines the importance of incentivizing
market alternatives, in addition to enacting bans.

“Hunters are very dedicated to using shotshells that they know work well for them,” Holly
Heyser with the non-profit California Waterfowl told me. “For people to buy something new,
you have to make it as easy as possible.”

Heyser has product-tested shotshells with biodegradable wads produced by GreenOps Ammo.
In her experience, they work well. She also appreciated that the wads sink in water and
biodegrade in six months, rather than float like their plastic alternatives. This feature makes it
less likely seabirds may mistake wads for squid and eat them.

Heyser’s hunting companions – and many others – want to try shotshells produced by
GreenOps Ammo, but they’re hard to find. While the shells are available on the internet,
California began prohibiting online sales of ammunition in 2018. For hunters to buy alternatives
— and stop the proliferation of plastic wads on San Francisco beaches — GreenOps Ammo and
others will have to start selling in stores.

It’s a goal Jason McDevitt, the company’s CEO, is working toward. Last week, he attended the
“Shot Show” in Las Vegas, an annual industry event. McDevitt described it as “overwhelming”
and an important chance to look for partners that can help his business grow. While he
supports necessary regulations, the cost of materials, taxes and competition make it difficult for
his business to scale.

“There’s a general sense that non-conventional plastic wads are going to be a really big deal,”
McDevitt told me. “We’ve been gratified by the response of hunters, who have been very
supportive, and we have been contacted by small companies and distributors who would like to
introduce our product to different countries. We’re certainly amenable to that, although our
preference is to partner with one of the larger ammo companies that is already doing business
all over the globe.”

McDevitt’s business could also benefit from excise tax exemptions or hunting season extensions
for people using a preferred type of ammunition.

Helping hunters may not sit well with some San Franciscans. But neither do city beaches
littered with plastic wads. The multiple environmental crises facing the planet require us to look
beyond cultural beliefs and politics, and thoughtfully confront the question: what must be
done? A healthy planet shouldn’t feel like a punishment.

A question from a reader:
In the past, I tossed torn, unusable clothes in the Goodwill bag because I was told they became
rags. Is this still correct? If not, what should I do with this fabric? I hate throwing it in the trash.
– Jane Weil

It’s wonderful living in a City where so many hate waste! Our ethos provides a healthy soil for
options to grow. Goodwill is one great option. If the tear makes the shirt, pants or socks unwearable, the nonprofit sends the item to their outlet for up-cycling. There, they are often repurposed for rags.

If clothes are so badly damaged that up-cycling is unlikely, then San Franciscans should put
them — and all other unusable textiles, such as pillows, blankets and shoes — in the blue bin.
Recology, The City’s recycling provider, asks that we bundle all fabrics in a clear bag and tie the
bag closed. Loose socks and sheets could jam equipment.

You’ve got questions? I’ve got answers. Email your sorting inquiries to

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 columnist. Check her out at

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