Staff Editorial: It May be Plastic, But It’s not Fantastic

A few weeks ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a bill that would restrict the sale of consumer goods on all city property. The bill, conceived and drafted by board member David Chiu, would ban the sale of plastic water bottles under 21 oz. at all public events and by food trucks that are regulated by the city. Although many city citizens and environmentalists are rallying behind this bill in support, it does appear to be deeply flawed. The bill will only forbid the sale and use of plastic water bottles, and not other kinds of plastic goods and packaging. This raises the question: Is the ban even worth it after all?

The main goal of the bill is to reduce plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles that are ending up in landfills used by the city. In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released figures that attest to the fact that PET should be the least of San Francisco’s concerns. In total, U.S. consumers produced more than 251 million tons of municipal solid waste per year, of which 2.79 million tons were PET bottles. The EPA also reports that PET bottles have the highest recovery rate of all recycled plastics, coming in at 30.8 percent. This leaves millions of tons of waste that are virtually unaccounted for, proving PET bottles should be low priority. These numbers also appear to underscore the fact that San Francisco is already home to many staunch environmentalists who do recycle.

So, if the focus can be taken off of the environmental impact that PET bottles have, then the focus must be placed on the behavioral responsibility the consumer holds. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Chiu said in an interview regarding the bill that he “want[s] to remind people that not long ago, our world was not addicted to plastic water bottles…[and] for centuries, everybody managed to stay hydrated.”

Chiu’s statement is true, but he fails to recognize that the increase of U.S. bottled water consumption was not because Americans consciously decided to pollute the earth and contribute to environmental degradation. According to an article published in by environmentalist Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, good marketing against the use of tap water, faulty environmental education, lax enforcement of environmental laws and lack of access to public drinking fountains are all contributing factors to increased water bottle consumption. This, coupled with data retrieved from the Beverage Marketing Corporation shows that Americans went from drinking less than 5 gallons of bottled water per year in 1976, to more than 35 gallons of bottled water per year in 2012.

Although the bill is awaiting final approval before being signed into law by San Francisco mayor, Ed Lee, let the heat surrounding this ordinance be a reminder of the greater impact of individual action. Plastic waste is not just an environmental problem, but a behavioral problem on behalf of consumers. The reason why this bill seems ridiculous is not because it aims to cull plastic consumption, but because it singles out plastic water bottle use. If city officials want to maximize the effectiveness of this bill, it would be smarter to push for stricter legislation that would ban all PET packaging sold in the city.

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