San Francisco International Airport

On August 20th, San Francisco International Airport became the first airport in the United States to ban single-use plastic water bottles, part of its broader effort to become a “zero” waste to landfill facility by 2021. Airport spokesperson Doug Yakel addressed why the focus is initially on water bottles and not all single-use plastic.

“SFO has about 100 hydration stations that dispense free filtered water, and the availability of water that’s been bottled in something besides plastic continues to grow. This trend has yet to make its way to flavored beverages, but we’re hopeful it does in the coming years.”

Besides energizing environmental activists and ticking off the thirsty business traveler rushing to Gate E, the backdrop to this ban is immense and existential: our addiction to plastic. 

“America’s beverage companies carefully design bottles to be 100% recyclable so they can be reused again and again for new bottles or for everyday products like clothes, shoes, furniture, even dog beds,” responded the American Beverage Association to the ban. “When our bottles and cans are collected and recycled, they can be made into something new; so they never have to wind up in landfills or as litter in oceans, beaches, and waterways.” 

However, many environmental experts believe we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic problem. 

The United State Geological Survey released a report in August titled “It is Raining Plastic” that found evidence of plastic in 90% of eight different collection sites in the Colorado Front Mountain Range. Scientific Reports released a study that discovered plastic contamination in Monterey Bay at equal or higher levels of plastic pollution than even the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And, although San Francisco’s Recology can make money off of our recycling, their signature “Better At The Bin” program is clear in its advice:

“Single-use plastics and excessive and unnecessary packaging are everywhere. Bananas in plastic bags. Zucchinis on Styrofoam trays wrapped in film plastic. Say NO to plastic.”

With so much plastic being used, though, just saying “no” might be a steep path out of our addiction. That’s why Emily DiFrisco, Director of Communication for The Plastic Pollution Coalition in Berkeley, sees the SFO ban as just one step.

“We support the ban,” DiFrisco said. “We also hope SFO can increase their refill stations to include soft drinks, ice cream, and other items beyond just hydration stations. We need to return to a time of re-use and not recycle. We didn’t have all this plastic decades ago.” 

DiFrisco pointed to the success at The Outside Lands Festival by their partner Steely’s Drinkware who produced 4,000 reusable Outside Lands-branded water bottles for sale to keep nearly 300,000 single-use plastic cups and bottles from the waste stream.

DiFrisco also hopes other cities, including San Francisco, pass ordinances similar to Berkeley’s Single-Use Disposable Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance that will require all dine-in food ware to be reusable and all take-out food ware to be compostable by January of 2020. 

“We worked on that ordinance for many years,” DiFrisco said. “It will incentivize less waste. We would love to see that extend to San Francisco.”

Stiv Wilson, Director of Campaigns for The Story of Stuff Project in Berkeley, hopes all of California adopts such measures through Assembly Bill 1080, which would phase out single-use plastics in all of California by 2030. But it failed to pass on Saturday.

“What I like about the SFO ban is that people coming from all over the world will see we have great water access with all the filtration stations,” Wilson said. “And that we don’t stand for single plastic here in SF.”

Like DiFrisco, and unlike the beverage association that insists recycling can solve the issue, Wilson wants SFO to do more. 

“It’s great that SFO is prohibiting water bottles, but I would also like SFO to refuse airlines that bring in plastic water bottles. I think SFO can ask airlines for a phased management plan so airlines will not dump their plastic waste when they get to SFO.” 

And Wilson believes the responsibility to stop plastic pollution relies squarely upon the corporations making billions of dollars creating plastic, not with the everyday citizen at the grocery store buying food for their family.

“We engage on the systemic level. We think it’s the corporation’s responsibility. If you can’t go to the grocery store and easily avoid single-use plastic, that’s a flaw in the system. We can’t put the burden on people who just want to buy dinner. The system should work. These companies have to internalize the cost.”

As the plastic industry faces growing pressure to reduce plastic, it seems to be turning to the fossil fuel industry for help. 

Plastic is a by-product of petroleum, so the oil and gas industry has successfully lobbied the Trump administration for 300 new plastic facilities in the US to increase plastic production by one-third by 2025. A Shell Plant outside of Pittsburgh will add 1.8 million tons of plastic each year, mostly in the form of tiny spheres called “nurdles” that the California Water Board defined as an environmental issue years ago because they get in the San Francisco bay and kill wildlife that mistake them for food. 

Wilson is clear about his organization’s attack plan against these developments. “When it comes to plastic waste, we’re only talking about 20-30 multinational corporations who are the problem. It’s more efficient to go after these companies than change the buying habits of over 300 million Americans.”

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