SFO Says Goodbye to Plastic Water Bottles

Instead of relying on the imploding recycling industry to reduce waste, San Francisco International Airport is banning plastic water bottles later this month.

About 10,000 plastic water bottles are bought at San Francisco International Airport each day. (Courtesy photo)

In just two short weeks, plastic water bottles will be a thing of the past at San Francisco International Airport.

Roughly 10,000 plastic water bottles are bought at the airport each day, spokesperson Doug Yakel says. By Aug. 20, that number will drop down to zero.

Instead, retailers at SFO will only be allowed to sell 25 approved bottled water products that don’t contain plastic. Most are sparkling or mineral water brands, like La Croix or Schweppes, but also include regular still water in aluminum cans or glass bottles, like Deja Blue or BluWave Water.

“Even a few years ago, the market for bottled water in something besides plastic was pretty thin,” Yakel says. “This is an industry that’s really matured.”

Better yet, travelers may be encouraged to bring their reusable bottles and fill them up at SFO’s 100 water stations. (Topping up post-security is still recommended, lest you prefer glugging from a 32-oz Hydro Flask in line.)

SFO will also require food vendors to serve prepared food and drinks with reusable or compostable cups, containers, and cutlery. Straws and smaller foodware, like stir sticks, will be upon request instead of automatically handed to customers.

Administrators believe they’re the first to implement this, and await the ability to ban plastic bottles for flavored drinks in the future.

“Our hope is that this industry for alternatives continues to grow, to essentially grow to encompass those flavored beverages,” Yakel says. “What we’re trying to address is the single-use bottles that would be thrown away after. The market of recycling plastic bottles is collapsing.”

Just 30 percent of plastic bottles in the United States are recycled, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2015. This is made all the more arduous by China’s 2018 ban on foreign recyclables that has several cities and states simply sending their recycling to landfill. Plans set by San Francisco and SFO to have zero waste by 2020 and 2021, respectively, have increasingly focused on reducing waste altogether.

Last month, Supervisor Aaron Peskin proposed requiring food vendors to provide reusable foodware for customers while charging a quarter for disposable cups and containers. The full board also more than doubled its bag fee to 25 cents last month, prohibited plastic straws in 2018 and banned plastic water bottles from being sold on city property in 2014. Music venue The Midway joined the cause by switching away from selling 800 plastic bottles a day to selling water in aluminum bottles earlier this year. At $6 a pop, people are more inclined to bring their own bottles everywhere — something that is a needed culture shift, environmental advocates say.

“We know that for some customers this will be a change,” Yakel says. “We’re confident the timing is right because there’s good alternatives.”

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