Single-use plastic items to be banned from national parks, public lands

Read Now on SF Chronicle

By Dustin Gardiner | June 8, 2022

Tourists and residents flocking to some of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Lands End soon won’t have access to disposable plastic items, such as water bottles, straws or shopping bags.

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that the federal government will phase out the sale and distribution of single-use plastic items on all public lands controlled by the Department of the Interior, including national parks, recreation areas and monuments.

Environmentalists cheered the announcement, which comes after hundreds of environmentalist groups recently urged Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to ban the use of disposable plastics in wildlife areas.

“Our national parks, by definition, are protected areas, ones that Americans have loved for their natural beauty and history for over a century, and yet we have failed to protect them from plastic for far too long,” said Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for Oceana, a wildlife advocacy group.

Haaland’s move is a rare win for wildlife and recycling advocates, who’ve struggled for years to convince state and federal government officials to do more to clamp down on the amount of plastic that Americans use once and toss in the trash.

Plastic use has skyrocketed in recent decades, wreaking havoc on marine habitats and the environment: More than 14 million tons of plastic flows into the ocean every year, according to a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That’s because only about 9% of plastic worldwide is ever recycled, and the material doesn’t biodegrade in nature.

Haaland, in a press statement, said her agency has an “obligation to play a leading role” in reducing the harm that plastic is causing to ecosystems and the environment as the nation’s steward of public lands.

Matt Seaholm, president of the Plastics Industry Association, said blanket bans on a specific type of material are “disappointing” and “counterproductive.” The industry group has suggested the problem is a lack of recycling infrastructure to handle plastic, not the material itself.

“We want all of our nation’s parks to remain pristine and would welcome the opportunity to discuss improving recycling infrastructure in parks as a better approach to sustainability,” he said in an email.

Many plastic products are marked with the chasing arrows symbol, suggesting they are recyclable. But most plastic film packaging cannot be recycled in blue curbside bins because it is a low-grade material with little reuse value.

Haaland’s order bans the sale of plastic and polystyrene food and beverage containers, bottles, straws, cups, cutlery, and bags on federal lands by no later than 2032. But the agency’s regional offices and bureaus will be required to outline their plans to phase out single-use plastics much sooner, within the next nine months.

The order will limit what items can be sold or handed out in stores, concession stands and visitor centers on federal lands operated by the agency.

In San Francisco, the order will effect the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which encompasses the namesake bridge along with many of the city’s most iconic sites and long stretches of its undeveloped coast. The area includes Alcatraz Island, Fort Mason, Crissy Field, Fort Funston, the Marin Headlands, Muir Woods National Monument and Point Reyes National Seashore, among other landmarks.

It will also affect federal lands throughout California, including Yosemite, Sequoia and Redwood national parks, to name a few.

The agency said plastic products will be replaced with containers and food ware made from disposable materials, such as paper and bioplastic (a plastic-like material that can be composted), as well as reusable glass, aluminum and stainless steel items.

California and other states have struggled to confront the plastic pollution crisis. In recent years, state legislators have repeatedly proposed bills to reduce the amount of single-use plastic containers and packaging used here, but those measures have often been defeated amid heavy opposition from the plastics industry.

In April, state Attorney General Rob Bonta launched an investigation into oil and chemical companies over what he described as the industry’s misleading consumers about the extent to which its products can be recycled.

“In California and across the globe, we are seeing the catastrophic results of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign of deception,” Bonta said at the time.

The issue could also soon be in the hands of California voters. Environmentalists have gathered enough signatures to put a plastic waste initiative on the November ballot. The measure would require manufacturers to make all plastic packaging recyclable or compostable by 2030.

Dustin Gardiner (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @dustingardiner