The Last Straw: San Francisco Targets Disposable Plastics

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By Joyce E. Cutler

Straws and takeout boxes made from fluorinated chemicals are the latest targets in San Francisco as the city looks to keep plastic out of its trash dumps.

An ordinance set to be debated by the city Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee in June comes 11 years after the city restricted use of plastic bags, which were eventually banned all across California in 2016.

The city’s ordinance banning single-use plastic straws and other plastic foodware is similar to neighboring Berkeley’s proposed Disposable Free Dining law. The Berkeley ordinance also includes a 25-cent fee for each disposable beverage cup or food container provided. The Oakland City Council on May 15 banned plastic straws unless a customer asks for one.

The plastic straw ban mirrors other state efforts to study or restrict use of products containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are linked to a range of health effects from low birth weights to elevated cholesterol levels.

The chemicals, commonly used in nonstick coatings and firefighting foams, can contaminate groundwater and soil. The Environmental Protection Agency hosted a two-day summit this week with state officials from across the country to discuss options for the substances. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has vowed to label two of the most pervasive of those chemicals—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)—hazardous under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“We have to think of this a part of a spectrum of laws designed to help shift our culture around single-use disposable wear, and especially around plastics,” San Francisco Supervisor Katy Tang told Bloomberg Environment.

Chemicals a Statewide Concern

While San Francisco cracks down on the 1 million straws being used in the city each day, California is debating several bills also targeting disposable plastics and PFAS products. The measures would bar use of some plastic cups or require warning labels on clothing made from mostly 50 percent plastic fibers saying they shed microfibers when washed. Another bill would require the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to identify food packaging containing PFAS as a priority for further study and possible regulation.

“What we know is that plastic in the water environment is effectively a carrier. The chemicals attach to it. It’s not just that we’re ingesting the plastic—we’re ingesting the chemicals that accumulate on the plastics,” Mark Murray, executive director of the nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization Californians Against Waste, told Bloomberg Environment.

San Francisco’s potential ban on persistent chemical-containing foodware containers may be wider-reaching when combined with the provision mandating that foodware offered as compostable have a Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification. That has restaurant operators concerned.

“The fluorinated chemicals is kind of a new focus, so we are still assessing what that means exactly in terms of overall cost,” Golden Gate Restaurant Association Executive Director Gwyneth Borden told Bloomberg Environment. “Obviously, nobody wants food material to be leaching terrible chemicals in the food,” especially in a community that cares about local, sustainable agriculture and a healthy food system, Borden said.

Zero Waste Goal

“By and large, many restaurants are already compliant. The question of whether or not they’re BPI certified is a little bit more complicated,” Borden said.

San Francisco isn’t requiring that all foodware be certified, Jack Macy, senior San Francisco zero waste coordinator, told Bloomberg Environment. “We want to make sure it meets the scientific standard for compostability. A large majority of these products are certified” with the BPI website listing products it certified.

Representatives for Starbucks Corp. and McDonald’s Corp. couldn’t be reached for comment.

Plastic straws, stirrers, and plugs that go into coffee are made of materials “that are theoretically possible” to recycle, “but they are so small and light that they drop through the cracks,” Debbie Raphael, San Francisco’s Department of the Environment director, told Bloomberg Environment.

The city’s goal, she said, is zero waste.

“I know it can be annoying, but sometimes we need government to pass laws in order to create that cultural shift. Because until someone enlightens you about the impacts of your daily behavior, you won’t realize it,” Tang said. “We’re hoping that the plastic straw ban is one of many, many things we need to address through legislation.”

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