One day after Supervisor Katy Tang proposed a ban on single-use plastic straws and other plastic food ware, National Geographic published an entire issue dedicated to the global plastic crisis. The numbers listed by the magazine were staggering: 6.3 billion tons of plastic doesn’t get recycled and 9 million tons end up in the ocean. It may never fully degrade.
People are becoming more aware of the inconvenient truth behind disposable living. Like climate change, plastic pollution is an enormous global problem.
But unlike climate change, the crisis is easier to mitigate. People, businesses and governments across the United States and around the world are reducing plastic waste and increasing recycling. Tang’s proposed ban is the latest example. The legislation could clean up our streets, save businesses money and protect the environment by eliminating the one million plastic straws San Franciscans use daily.
The City should do more, though. I reached out to leading Democrat mayoral candidates Angela Alioto, London Breed, Jane Kim and Mark Leno to hear their thoughts on plastic pollution and San Francisco’s goal to send zero waste to landfills by 2020. What I heard back gave me hope. The City’s next leader may not only aggressively work to eliminate the black bin, but also reduce the blue.
Breed was quick to jump on the phone to talk about the issue. A co-sponsor of Tang’s ordinance, Breed was also the driving force behind The City’s Styrofoam ban and has worked to help San Franciscans easily dispose of dangerous and expired old medications. When I asked if she thought plastic pollution was a problem, she said “it’s insane.”
“One million straws in San Francisco, and that doesn’t include plastic packaging at the grocery store, plastics on airplanes …” Breed told me. “We can do better. We have technology, we understand the impacts and we can do a better job to implement the right policies to address the issues.”
Unsurprisingly, Kim and Leno echoed Breed’s concern. Most San Franciscans extol healthy and sustainable living. Breed, Kim and Leno will uphold these values. Presumably, Alioto will, too; however, she was not familiar with the straw ban when we spoke and did not respond to my follow-up email.
But despite their shared concerns, the candidates did reveal some differences. Breed and Leno provided thorough responses that conveyed both knowledge of and an aggressive position on waste reduction.
They extolled the success of San Francisco programs that have diverted approximately 80 percent of The City’s waste from landfills. While it’s unlikely San Francisco will eliminate the black bin in time to meet its zero waste by 2020 goal, the target has inspired necessary bans, and could continue to drive legislative, industry and behavior changes.
“I will not push the timeline back,” Breed told me. “We should hold onto the goal, push hard and be really assertive on our outreach strategy.”
In written comments, Leno also stressed the importance of maintaining the zero-waste goal. Leno authored Senate Bill 529, which required fast food chains to use recyclable or compostable materials. He believes The City’s waste reduction policies could motivate stronger state action.
“As mayor, I would reach out to and coordinate with advocacy groups to explain and promote our zero waste strategies as ways other cities and counties throughout the state can improve, and ultimately urge the state to implement our successful programs,” Leno told me.
He also said he would set an “attainable target” toward reducing disposable plastic waste in The City by working with representatives from the plastics industry, environmental agencies, local businesses, manufacturers and other concerned parties.
“San Francisco needs to reduce plastic, which has a near-eternal shelf life,” Leno explained. “A ban could make a dent in the mountain of petroleum-based wrappings and accessories, long blamed for littering streets and choking marine life, we toss out each year.”
Like Breed and Leno, Kim also believes The City needs to “do far more to reduce plastic waste.” An email from her campaign team emphasized the first “R” in the popular phrase “reduce, reuse and recycle,” as well as Kim’s personal efforts to decrease the black bin.
“Jane Kim takes our vision waste goals seriously and has personally worked to reduce her own consumption by recycling, reusing and affirmatively avoiding plastic products,” Julie Edwards, a campaign spokesperson, told me.
“She would look to work with residents to set a [plastic reduction] target and would want to be sure The City works closely with small business owners on the front end so everyone has clear guidance and a positive role in making our city a model for waste reduction,” Edwards added.
San Francisco’s next mayor faces major issues like homelessness, affordability and crime. Our streets need a lot of help, and plastic pollution and litter is only one part. But San Francisco’s leader must be prepared to tackle all the challenges.
“It’s not one versus the other,” Breed said. “It’s important to balance all of the issues to move The City forward.”
GREEN SPACE Q&A
“Is gum compostable?” — Molly Cohen
It’s a short question, but spitting out an answer isn’t simple.
For thousands of years, our ancestors used tree gum and bark tar to improve oral health and stick substances together. But manufacturers replaced these natural products with a plastic base and questionable substances, like aspartame and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT).
Rats that are fed BHT have developed lung and liver tumors. Although some countries banned the additive, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies it as “generally recognized as safe for use” in chewing gum and other preserved foods.
Robert Reed of Recology, San Francisco’s recycling provider, said more tests should be done to determine whether gum with these materials is compostable.
Purchasing natural-based chewing gum, like GLEE Gum or Simply Gum, is a healthier and more environmentally-friendly alternative. Both are sold at Rainbow Grocery.
Is sorting your trash giving you lasting strife? Give me a question to chew on! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 robynpurchia.com.