Congratulations and Thank You to the City of San Francisco. The Golden City has become the latest to ban the sale of one of the biggest environmental nuisances: plastic bottles. Furthermore, retailer and vendors operating inside city limits will soon no longer have permission to include single-use plastic accessories without meeting specific criteria.
“What’s so great about that?” you may be wondering. Fair enough. We’ll address this question by first discussing the environmental costs of plastic before explaining what San Fran’s law entails. Finally, we’ll get into the latest news and research about possible plastic alternatives – and how you can do your part.
The Environmental Cost of Plastic
“An estimated 4.8–12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered the world’s oceans from land-based sources in 2010 alone, and the flux of plastics to the oceans is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude within the next decade.” – Beaumont, N.J., Et al. (source)
No other material exemplifies the words “garbage” and “toxic” quite like plastic. From extraction and production to consumption and disposal, plastic pollutes throughout its entire life-cycle.
The manufacturing of plastic requires crude oil as raw material as well as natural gas and coal to power the plants that churn it out. Moreover, extracting fuels generates air and water pollution, harming local communities. The ubiquitous nature of plastic acts as a sort of lifeline to an industry that is continually being reprimanded for its environmental crimes. Whenever you hear about a gas line exploding or oil seeping into well water, you can thank the fossil fuel industry.
Converting crude oil into plastic requires the operation of chemical processing plants that emit some of the highest levels of pollution of any commercial activity. Just this past March, a Texas woman submitted evidence of illegal dumping – unauthorized waste disposal – to a federal court. What was the evidence? Countless toxin-producing plastic pellets which had been piling up in waterways for nearly three decades.
Plastic is one of the most toxic materials in existence. Most plastic products, including the “sippy cups” given to babies, toys children play with, and products our pets chew on may release chemicals that mimic the sex hormone estrogen. Plastic can adsorb – gather and hold the molecules of – toxic substances from any environment. It is estimated that almost 80 percent of all pollutants listed as “priority” is linked to plastic litter.
Since plastic is non-biodegradable, it stays around for hundreds of years. It is estimated that only nine percent of all plastic is recycled; the rest ends up in landfills, waterways, oceans, mountains, and every other imaginable place. Plastic even seeps into our tap water, exposing our bodies and those of our children and pets to its toxins.
Where Plastic Ends Up
The images of marine animals bound with plastic bags are disturbing; likewise, the troves of plastic forming makeshift barriers alongside once-pristine beaches; likewise, the plastic debris that accumulates in our national parks. How about the 200 tons of garbage being dragged off of Mount Everest?
But it’s not just these unsettling images that should cause alarm. Indeed, plastic is an environmental nuisance, and it appears as if we’re reaching critical mass (no pun intended.) The fact is that plastic can end up anywhere and everywhere – and it does. Here’s a voluntary experiment: next time you’re out on the town, take a close look around you. The amount of free-floating plastic garbage is astonishing.
“Plastic, Litter, and Toxics Reduction Law”
“We have to stop treating our oceans and planet like a dumpster. Any fifth-grader can tell you that our addiction to single-use plastics is killing our ecosystems.” – Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (source)
Going into effect on July 1, 2019, all San Francisco retailers and food and beverage vendors cannot distribute “single-use foodware” plastics, including straws, beverage plugs, cocktail sticks, stirrers, and toothpicks. On January 1, 2020, all compostable foodware, including great-resistant paper, paper plates, and to-go containers must be certified as biodegradable.
As part of the law, products such as chopsticks, condiment packages, lids, napkins, sleeves, stirrers, and utensils are only available upon customer request. The new law prohibits including these accessories in a customer’s order for dine-in, take-out, or delivery unless requested.
City officials have also voted to ban the sale and distribution of plastic bottles on all city property.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban or regulate plastic bag usage, expected to reduce plastic bag usage by 70 to 90 percent. A few years later, in 2012, Los Angeles County passed a similar plastic bag ban.
Concerning efforts to reduce or eliminate plastics, California appears to have taken the lead. Of all states, California has more laws on the books than any other. In August of 2014, the state of California became the first to impose a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. The law also introduced a 10-cent surcharge on recycled, reusable, or compostable paper and plastic bags.
Other states that have a ban on plastic bags include Hawaii and New York. States that have statewide “labeling, recycling or reuse” programs include Delaware, Maine, and Rhode Island.
So far this year (2019), lawmakers have introduced at least 95 bills related to plastic bag consumption. Most bills introduced would either ban plastic bags or charge a per-bag fee for those options to use one. The remaining bills would work with local governments to institute some kind of recycling program or some other measure.
Final Thoughts: Plastic Alternatives and Doing Your Part
“We have technology and innovation to improve how we reduce and recycle the plastic packaging and products in our state. Now we [must] find the political will to do so.” – Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez
Human beings are amazingly intelligent, innovative, and resourceful. The fact that most of society can’t seem to agree upon and implement means – laws, programs, anything – to counteract the environmental damage being done by plastic (and other stuff) defies common sense.
Make no mistake: we can use plenty of materials instead of plastic – at least when it comes to bagging, packaging, and storing things. Some of the more interesting alternatives include:
A malleable byproduct of sugarcane processing, it could serve as packaging for food delivery and food service.
Manufactured out of waste from food products, bioplastics can make bottles, containers, and films. The most promising bioplastic is polylactic acid (PLA), made from waste from corn production.
Corn starch and sorghum:
An eco-friendly alternative to polystyrene, corn starch and sorghum (grains used to make flour and as cattle feed) can be manufactured to serve as a packaging filler.
A protein in milk, called casein, can be used to make plastic. A company called Lactips already manufactures plastic for the detergent industry.
Both a compostable and recyclable alternative to metallized boards and paper, silberboard has many potential uses, including as a food container and a film.
Most places around the world have some kind of recycling program. Until the above-mentioned alternatives gain traction and serve as a more viable alternative to plastics, all of us can do our part by merely collecting the plastics we don’t need and heading to the recycling bin. We can also take simple measures such as using sustainable grocery bags or choosing paper instead of plastic.