San Francisco refuses bioplastic straws

Golden Gate Bridge, SF
CC BY 2.0 patrickcam

By next year at this time, all straws in SF will be made from paper, bamboo, wood, metal or fiber.

In very wonderful news, the city of San Francisco has just passed a ban on plastic straws and other foodware accessories that will take effect on July 1, 2019. What's fascinating about this particular ban is that it extends to bioplastic, which is commonly touted as a green alternative to petroleum-based plastic. This means that once the ordinance kicks in all straws, toothpicks, beverage plugs, stirrers, and cocktail sticks served in the city can only be made from paper, bamboo, wood, metal or fiber.

You might be wondering what the problem is with bioplastic. After all, shouldn't a plant-based product be better for the environment than a petroleum-based one? But it's more complicated than that.

A report by the 5 Gyres Institute explains that regardless what the originating material (feedstock) is, whether it's biomass like leftover sugarcane stalks or petroleum, the end product is the same polymerized plastic.

"The feedstock however doesn’t determine its compostability or biodegradability, the molecular structure does. Therefore using the word 'Bioplastic' doesn’t tell you anything about its performance in the environment, or its recyclability... PET is the plastic polymer that water bottles, for instance, are commonly made of, and while nearly all PET water bottles are made from fossil fuel-derived plastic, PET can also be made from biomass, and is called bio-PET. Bio-PET, bio-PP, or bio-PE are no different than PET, PP or PE, the feedstock is just different— and none of them are compostable or biodegradable."

Studies have revealed that bioplastic does not break down in marine environments and poses just as great a risk to marine wildlife as petroleum-based plastics. Because of this, a sea turtle is as likely to get a bioplastic straw up its nose as it is a regular one, and seagulls will continue to fill their stomachs with bioplastic bags. The Surfrider Foundation describes research that found "bio-plastic straws made from PLA (a plant-based plastic) did not substantially degrade in a 24-month time period at sea."

Additionally, some 'biodegradable' bags require only 20 percent plant-based content in order to be labeled as such. Shocking, isn't it? (Read more: The problem with bioplastics)

I've long believed that using bioplastics as an alternative to petroleum-based plastics is a cop-out by companies who don't really want to change their practices in any significant way. This was my gripe with the so-called 'zero waste' grocery store in Amsterdam, which features aisles of bioplastic-wrapped foods that make it look just like any old grocery store.

San Francisco's decision to extend the straw ban to bioplastics, by contrast, is a impressive example of what is realistically achievable. Functional non-plastic alternatives do exist, so it makes sense to embrace them. In San Francisco, where an estimated one million straws are used daily and 67 percent of street litter entering the Bay is comprised of food and beverage packaging, this ordinance will make a real difference.

It goes even further, mandating that customers will only receive foodware accessories upon request or in self-serve settings. By 2020 all foodware must be free from fluorinated chemicals and, interestingly, 10 percent of attendees at events with over 100 people must be provided with reusable cups. Those cups may have a required minimum percentage of post-consumer content, although this is pending approval.

Let's hope many more cities and businesses follow in San Francisco's footsteps. You can learn more about the ordinance here.

San Francisco refuses bioplastic straws
By next year at this time, all straws in SF will be made from paper, bamboo, wood, metal or fiber.

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