San Francisco Waterfront Takes Steps to Reduce Plastic Straw Pollution

San Francisco's Pier 39 and Aquarium of the Bay announced a plan last month to minimize the distribution of plastic straws along the San Francisco waterfront in an effort to reduce the harmful pollution of waterways.

In an effort to reduce plastic pollution in the Bay, Pier 39 and its partners, Blue & Gold Fleet and Adventure Cat Sailing Charters, will be switching to compostable or reusable metal straws and providing straws only upon request. SF Environment


Published: July, 2018


San Francisco’s Pier 39 and Aquarium of the Bay announced a plan last month to minimize the distribution of plastic straws along the San Francisco waterfront in an effort to reduce the harmful pollution of waterways.


The announcement fell on the heels of an ordinance introduced in May by San Francisco Supervisor Katy Tang, who represents San Francisco’s Sunset and Parkside neighborhoods, to ban plastic straws and other single-use plastic foodware in San Francisco beginning July 1, 2019.


In June, Tang joined Pier 39 CEO Taylor Safford and Aquarium of the Bay President and CEO George Jacob at a news conference at Pier 39 to explain how plastic pollution negatively impacts the world’s oceans and marine wildlife.


“Having grown up in the Sunset, I have a deep appreciation for the environment and an understanding of what we as humans are doing to really destroy our planet,” Tang said.


The facts about single-use plastics are damning. Nearly one million plastic straws are used daily in San Francisco, and nearly 500 million are used every day in the United States. In fact, single-use food and beverage packaging accounts for 67 percent of the street litter that ends up in the Bay each year.


Researchers say that if we continue to pollute the oceans at the current rate, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. While straws represent a small portion of the eight million tons of plastic trash that pollute oceans annually, supporters of a ban on straws say a straw’s size makes it a particularly harmful offender because when straws end up in the ocean, which they often do, they ensnare marine wildlife and are often mistaken for food.


“Since plastics came into being in 1880s they’ve become very sophisticated in their design and their quality, making them more and more difficult to recycle,” said Jacob. “Straws are a habit that we have to cut, and a luxury that we can’t afford.”


Jacob added that the Aquarium of the Bay has plans for several sustainability-focused exhibits over the next 18 months that he hopes will stoke the fire of a fast-growing movement.


That movement gained speed in 2015, when a video showing marine scientists removing a straw that had become embedded in a sea turtle’s nostril surfaced and went viral. That video has since been viewed over 27 million times.


But the movement was actually sparked years earlier. “Before that video, I was the crazy straw lady,” jokes the Last Plastic Straw founder Jackie Nunez, who joined Tang, Jacob and Stafford at the June 8 press conference at Pier 39. The Last Plastic Straw is a community volunteer organization that educates the public and private sectors about simple ways—like giving up straws—to help solve the problem of plastic pollution.


Nunez was inspired to start the Last Plastic Straw in 2011, after returning from a trip to Central America where she saw coastlines and coastal waters ravaged by plastic pollution and was offered a plastic straw for a glass of water at a beach café in Santa Cruz. “I didn’t ask for a straw; it was just given to me,” she writes on the organization’s website. “Back in 2011, I believed this would become a movement, and it’s exceeded my expectations,” Nunez said.


“We keep using these single-use plastics and thinking, ‘Oh, I put it in the blue bin so it’ll get recycled,’” Tang said. “But straws because of their unique shape and size literally fall through the cracks of our recycling machines and do not get recycled—not even the ones that are supposed to be compostable.”


What difference does it make?

Pier 39 is home to 14 sit-down and 13 fast food restaurants, seven food carts, and two attractions that sell beverages. These establishments serve 10 million visitors annually, so Stafford said that switching to verified compostable straws and providing straws only upon request, which these businesses plan to do, will make a huge difference.


“This step will have a huge impact on the Bay and wildlife,” he said. “And each year moving forward, the ‘Skip the Straw’ message will reach visitors from every nation on earth. We’re humbled and thankful to be in such an influential position where we can not only entertain our guests but also educate them about the importance of reducing plastic waste in our environment.”


Pier 39 partners Blue & Gold Fleet and Adventure Cat Sailing Charters will follow the pier’s lead, as will Aquarium of the Bay’s concessions.


But straws are just the beginning. Tang’s proposed Plastic and Litter Reduction Ordinance will further reduce plastic pollution by also prohibiting the distribution and sale of plastic stir sticks, plastic toothpicks, and the plastic “splash sticks” used to keep liquid from spilling through the sipping hole of to-go drinks.


The ordinance will also eliminate the treatment of to-go food packaging with fluorinated chemicals used as a water and grease barrier. These chemicals are toxic and seep into food. They also seep into water and soil when they enter the waste stream. Finally, the initiative also requires that the organizer of any event held on City of San Francisco property with over 100 attendees must supply reusable cups for at least 10 percent of those attendees.


San Francisco Department of the Environment Director Debbie Raphael said in a written statement announcing Tang’s proposed ordinance, “It’s time to bring the era of disposability to a close. This new ordinance is the next step in our city’s larger strategy to encourage more sustainable choices and reduce the volume of discarded plastics and other pollutants.”


“This is a culture we have to change,” Tang said at Pier 39. “And it’s simple. Refuse a straw if you don’t need one; and if you do use one, use one that more’s environmentally friendly.”


“On a personal level, it’s not that difficult of a change to make,” she added. “I’ve started carrying a reusable straw with me.”