S.F. Stirs Up Plastic Straw Ban

The proposed straw ban presents a big opportunity to cut back the city’s waste and join a growing movement.

Supporters of the proposed plastic straw ban spoke on the steps of City Hall on July 16, 2018 before the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee heard the legislation. (Photo by Ida Mojadad)

San Francisco is on its way to banning plastic straws and other single-use plastics, the kind denounced for polluting city streets and waterways.

On Monday, the Land Use and Transportation Committee approved a ban on the sale, use, and distribution of plastic straws and related food accessories, beginning January 2019. The legislation brought forward by Supervisor Katy Tang also created restrictions on events held on city grounds, such as Outside Lands, and banned a chemical that often lines foodware.

“This is about reducing the need for something that’s just not necessary,” Supervisor Ahsha Safai said during the meeting, adding a caveat for people with disabilities. “It’s legislation like this that changes the industry, changes behavior.”

San Francisco joins Berkeley, Seattle, and San Luis Obispo — as well as the entire United Kingdom — in proposing or implementing a ban on small plastics. About 67 percent of street trash comes from single-use foodware items, and one million straws are used in the San Francisco every day, according to Department of the Environment Director Debbie Raphael.

The city already has a similar ban on non-compostable or recyclable single-use foodware, such as ones made of polystyrene foam (aka Styrofoam), and a well-known requirement to charge 10 cents for plastic bags. Under the new amendment, straws, stirrers, splash sticks that plugs coffee lid holes, cocktail sticks, and toothpicks made out of plastic — including compostable or plant-based plastic — would be added to the list, starting in July 2019.

By January 2020, events on city grounds with more than 100 people would be required to have at least 10 percent of attendees use reusable cups. A ban on foodware items with fluorinated chemicals, which are associated with higher risks of cancer and other adverse health effects, will also kick in at the later deadline, as will the Department of Environment’s new ability to regulate the inclusion post-consumer recycled products in city contracts.

In the global movement to eliminate plastic straws, people with disabilities and their advocates have asked for more consideration. Some may rely on straws that are both durable and flexible if they have a mobility impairment, such as a joint condition. The San Francisco proposal allows straws to be provided upon request at shops, restaurants, and hospitals.

It also puts a foot down on compostable straws, because they’re not easily identified as such and often get diverted to recycling out of caution, where they join plastic straws in falling through the cracks of machines and onto landfill — or blowing into the ocean, where it’s too cold for them to biodegrade, Raphael said. Creative alternatives include reusable straws made of bamboo, metal, or glass; paper straws; pasta or bamboo stirrers; and strawless lids (à la Starbucks’ new initiative).

Supervisors Safai, Tang, and Aaron Peskin joined environmental advocates in support of the ban before the meeting, as did most of the public commenters who cited the environmental impact and negative health effect that comes with the straws.

“We can’t keep living a disposable lifestyle,” said Steven Raspa, a producer for Burning Man who spoke at the press conference. “The real enemy is our own thinking of how we can throw something away and someone else will deal with it.”

A few commenters cited concerns. One woman sought a provision for cash-strapped nonprofits, and San Francisco Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President of Public Policy Jim Lazarus asked for clarification on packaged products that already come with plastic straws, such as juice boxes. Tang moved to add a provision to address it.

After all the talk of breaking habits and needing a culture change, co-sponsor Jane Kim sheepishly admitted that she’d thrown away her Boba Guys straw during Raphael’s presentation, and that she’s always looking at ways to reduce her own consumption. The full Board of Supervisors will vote on the amendment by the end of the month, according to Tang’s office. With no reservations expressed by remaining supervisors, it appears likely that the ban will pass when, according to Tang’s office, the full Board of Supervisors puts it up to a vote by the end of the month.

“It’s not just about substitute, it’s really about reduce,” Raphael said. “The dominoes are falling all over the world.”

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