San Francisco is light-years ahead of other American towns when it comes to keeping trash out of landfills. I recently took a vacation to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. In such a beautiful, natural setting, I was sad to see trashcans filled with Styrofoam containers, plastic bags and half-eaten sandwiches. At the restaurant Town Docks in Meredith, N.H., everything — cups, plates, napkins — is disposable.
I’m not used to seeing this amount of waste anymore. San Franciscans have brought reusable bags grocery shopping and composted their food scraps for years. Styrofoam has been banned in restaurants for a decade. This is a city where people want to reduce their impact, and the government is always exploring ways to cut waste.
But for some reason, we’re still using plastic straws like every other town in America.
According to the Surfrider Foundation, an organization committed to protecting oceans and beaches, approximately 500 million plastic straws are used every day in the United States. That’s enough waste to fill more than 127 school buses each day.
Eva Holman, a Surfrider volunteer, frequently sees straws littered on San Francisco’s beaches and sidewalks. She told me they have been one of the top 10 pieces of trash gathered at cleanups since the California Coastal Commission began collecting data in 1989.
“Plastic straws suck,” Holman told me, echoing Surfrider’s campaign slogan. “While many other single-use plastics serve at least some small purpose, such as holding water or food, plastic straws have no real purpose or value other than a very brief convenience.”
Plastic straws are not only unsightly and unnecessary; they’re also dangerous. The litter ends up in waterways and contributes to the devastating affect our plastic addiction has on wildlife. Countless seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles die every year when they eat or get entangled in plastic pollution.
The best way to combat the problem is to decline a straw at restaurants. Humans have survived for millennia by simply drinking out of cups.
But if a straw is necessary, there are more environmentally friendly alternatives than plastic. In 2006, the Board of Supervisors passed a law requiring restaurants and food vendors to use disposable items made from compostable or recyclable materials. The Food Waste Reduction Ordinance was supposed to reduce litter, but many straws San Franciscans use to sip our cold brews and smoothies still pollute our city.
Plastic made from petroleum is not compostable, and straws’ size and quality make them difficult to recycle. Robert Reed at Recology, San Francisco’s waste provider, told me existing recycling equipment can’t always process small and light-weight straws. Plastic straws are also typically made of low-grade material, which makes it hard to find a market for the recycled plastic. While Reed didn’t say plastic straws are never recyclable, he did say it was a challenge.
It’s time for San Francisco to take on this challenge by enforcing the 2006 ordinance and protecting The City from unnecessary plastic litter. I’ve been told city officials are aware of community interest on the issue. I’ve also been told a state plastic straw ban is in the works. San Francisco government should use this momentum to show the world how a ban could succeed.
“Often we can find answers to environmental challenges by asking: What worked in the past?” Reed told me. “In this case, one answer is paper straws. Paper straws used to be very common in the country. If businesses switch back, we could easily compost them.”
I would love for paper straws to once again be common and I would love it if my hometown helped it happen. When I recently stepped out of the San Francisco bubble, I realized how lucky I am to live in a city where my neighbors and government officials care about their environmental impact. Saying goodbye to plastic straws should be a no-brainer for an environmental leader like San Francisco.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.California Coastal CommissionenvironmentEva Holmangreen spaceplasticRobyn PurchiaSan Franciscostraw banstyrofoam