San Francisco Plastic Ban Inspires Criticism and Innovation | AIChE

San Francisco Plastic Ban Inspires Criticism and Innovation


One-thousand miles off the California coast is a Texas-sized patch of degraded plastic particles collectively floating — a vortex in the North Pacific Ocean choked with disintegrated waste and the bodies of ensnared marine life. Once-intact litter gathers here for the final stages of decomposition; it is a mecca for discarded plastic water bottles, shopping bags, disposable lighters, and even car tires.

This swath of ocean, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is packed with plastic fragments circulated by ocean currents and consumed unknowingly and fatally by countless marine animals. The source of the debris is back on land, where plastic waste has become a term synonymous with overflowing litter and pollution.

In San Francisco alone, citizens use more than 300 million single-use cups per year and more than a million plastic straws per day. The city removes approximately 14,000 trash bags full of trash from its wastewater treatment plants every year. City officials and residents have disputed the extended use of fluorinated chemicals in plastic food packaging because of characteristic bio-accumulative properties, i.e., their tendency to persist and aggregate in the environment. Studies have also shown that these chemicals may cause cancer.

These issues inspired the city of San Francisco to act, and in July 2018, it became the first major U.S. urban center to ban certain plastics. The board of supervisors voted to bar the sale of any food-service products made of polystyrene foam, including plastic straws, stirrers, and toothpicks. The approved proposal also limits restaurants from offering takeout customers plates, forks, spoons, and napkins unless they explicitly ask for them. Violations are punishable by fines.

San Francisco Supervisor Katy Tang, the author of the initiative, hopes that such a ban will discourage the use of single-use plastics and inspire innovation in the industry. But it’s more complicated than that — for many, the plastic waste crisis goes beyond the scope of a government ban.

“This campaign for straws is not necessarily going to stop straws from going into the ocean or polluting the environment,” says Jason Locklin, a materials scientist at the Univ. of Georgia (UGA). “There are pros and cons for this ban; one of the cons is that there’s a lot of confusion from the general public.”


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