One of the main reasons people object to bans on single-use plastic products is that they fear being inconvenienced. How do I get my groceries from the checkout to the car without those free plastic bags? How can I possibly consume a frosty beverage if restaurants stop handing out plastic straws? What if the wood pulp spork gives me splinters?
A more appropriate question might be, “Why is no one doing something about the fact that microparticles of plastic are seeping into the drinking water and food supply?” Yet convenience too often trumps smart environmental choices. For that reason, we’re heartened to see that San Francisco International Airport seems to have figured out how shut down one of its most ubiquitous and pernicious sources of disposable plastic trash in a single swoop, and with very little inconvenience to the roughly 58 million travelers who pass through its gates every year. It will do this by prohibiting its concessions from selling water in single-use plastic bottles, starting of Aug. 20.
Hang on — we know what you’re thinking. In fact, we had the same initial thought upon hearing about the latest bold idea from California’s most aggressively progressive big city: That it is the opposite of “very little inconvenience” to deprive travelers of the ability to buy a bottle of flat or sparkling water when they aren’t allowed to bring their own supply through security. What are they supposed to do, suck down sugary sodas or lap up water from bathroom sinks?
But SFO has done two smart and necessary things to prepare for this change, which is part of its zero-waste strategy. First, to go along with the existing water fountains, the airport has installed about 100 refilling stations on both sides of the security checkpoints (compared with only about 15 at the vast Los Angeles International Airport) where travelers can get as much free filtered water as their reusable water bottles can hold. And second, it installed liquid pour-out stations where travelers can empty their half-consumed bottles of Dasani and take them through security to fill up on the other side. Otherwise, they’d have to toss them in the trash, which is what people have to do at most airports unless a potted plant is handy.
The immediate effect will be the elimination of an estimated 4 million plastic water bottles that would otherwise be sold each year, most of which would have ended up in the trash or littering the landscape. Even though California requires consumers to pay a 5- or 10-cent deposit on most bottled beverages, and even though most water bottles are shuttled to a recycling center, they may not actually be recycled. The international market for plastic has cratered. It’s cheaper right now for manufacturers to make new plastic than to turn used plastic into something else.
Even if the airport concessions simply switched to water in aluminum cans or glass bottles, that would still be better for the environment, because healthy recycling markets remain in place for glass and aluminum. Also, they will be competing against the refilling stations’ water, which will be available at the attractive price point of zero.
One thing SFO could do to help travelers would be to make sure that retailers offer reasonably priced reusable bottles for sale, something like the $1 reusable plastic water bottle Starbucks rolled out a few years ago. Even though San Francisco caps the markup of products sold at the airport to just 10% above the market average cost, it doesn’t require concession tenants to stock anything other than high-end, pricey water bottles if they don’t want to.
We’d love to see Los Angeles International Airport, which is currently working on a sustainability plan to reach zero waste, pay attention to what SFO is doing, with an eye toward considering something similar. Understandably it would be a much bigger lift for LAX, the world’s fourth-busiest airport, to ban plastic bottles. But with 87.5 million travelers a year, it could have a much bigger environmental and social impact. If it goes without a hitch, it would provide LAX and other public venues — including sports stadiums, college campuses and malls — with a road map to reining in the growing pile of single-use plastic without invoking the all-powerful curse of inconvenience.