Grim Reality - Recycling Can't Fix This

Coastal Cleanup Day is the world's largest volunteer day to protect our environment. Golden Gate National Park organizes efforts in the SF Bay Area and invites you to take part on Saturday, September 15, 2018. Photo: National Ocean & Atmospheric Administration

To gain insight into the complexities of environmental health, I sat down with John Rizzo, a member of both the SF Group and Chapter Executive Committees of the Sierra Club. Rizzo is also a technical adviser to various environmental non-profits. We talked about his work around decreasing pollution in our oceans and waterways. Rizzo had just returned from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Sixth International Marine Debris conference in San Diego.

At the end of our discussion, my head was spinning from the scope of the problem of plastics in our oceans. Impacts range from the now-famous Pacific Gyre, a floating mass of garbage that is twice the size of Texas, to small bottle caps that sea birds feed to their chicks (who then die), and all the way down to microplastics, tiny partic les which are infecting everything in the world and whose impact has yet to be fully studied and understood.

As much as some folks might complain about more rules, regulation is one way to ensure not only compliance but also a level playing field for the businesses involved. Why should an environmentally-conscious business have higher costs than one that foists the cost onto the rest of us by polluting the planet?”

Perhaps the best place to start is somewhere in the middle.

As an example, let's study the life of a plasticized coffee cup from a coffee shop in Chicago. If that cup were thrown into the Chicago River, it could float down to the Mississippi and from there into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Current could carry it across the Atlantic Ocean as far as the coast of Ireland. That is, if it didn't break down into tiny microplastics. In that case it might end up on the ocean floor and be scooped up by denizens of the deep. Or algae could attach to it, and the plastic would be eaten along with the algae. (Maybe we should skip the seafood for dinner and go for the veggie special.)

What is certain is that our earth is being overwhelmed with debris, and, in the case of plastic, it is not going to disappear on its own. Plastics can not only poison and injure marine life but they can also disrupt human hormones, litter our beaches, and clog our streams and landfills.

Recycling is not going to take care of this massive problem. Even with concerted efforts at recycling, only about 9% of plastics are recycled worldwide, and that is only in the countries that have developed the infrastructure to do it. Poor communities just don't have the resources to develop recycling programs. At the NOAA conference, one speaker showed pictures of beaches in poor communities littered with plastic garbage, while the wealthier areas enjoyed pristine coastlines.

Compostable bags and utensils are also, apparently, not the answer - at least not yet. Rizzo learned that there are no standards for biodegradable bags or utensils as there are for, say, organic vegetables. Some materials break down easily, others do not. Some bio-degradable bags were even found to have microplastics in them! The conscientious NOAA conference provided metal forks, cloth napkins and china cups. Come to think of it, for all of us tired of eating off of plastic, this is a pleasant solution to a serious problem.

Plastics are all around us - a complex problem with many moving parts that must be addressed on multiple fronts, including governmental regulation. As much as some folks might complain about more rules, regulation is one way to ensure not only compliance but also a level playing field for the businesses involved. Why should an environmentally-conscious business have higher costs than one that foists the cost onto the rest of us by polluting the planet?

We can each have an impact on this growing environmental crisis: start limiting the amount of plastic we use; ask businesses we patronize to do that same; support legislation that reduces or eliminates plastics; and participate in clean-ups.

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

Volunteer for International Coastal Cleanup Day

Bring their own reusable water bottle/coffee mug, reusable gloves, and/or bucket

SAN FRANCISCO—WEST Contact: Golden Gate National Parks (415) 561-3077 or

Aquatic Park and Fisherman's Wharf

Site Captain: Aquarium of the Bay, SF Maritime National Historical Park

Crissy Field at Stilwell Hall

Site Captain: Presidio Trust

Baker Beach

Site Captain: National Park Services

East Beach and Crissy Marsh

Site Captain: National Park Services

Fort Funston

Site Captain: UC Davis SF Alumni Chapter, NPS, Parks Conservancy

Lands End

Site Captain: Parks Conservancy

Marina Green and Small Craft Harbor

Site Captain: San Francisco Recreation and Park Department

Ocean Beach at Balboa & Sutro Heights ParkFULL

Site Captain: San Francisco JROTC

Ocean Beach at Fulton

Site Captain: CA Coastal Commission, NPS, Parks Conservancy

Ocean Beach at Judah

Site Captain:

Ocean Beach at Noriega

Site Captain: Surfrider Foundation, San Francisco Chapter

Ocean Beach at Sloat

Site Captain: Surfrider Foundation, San Francisco Chapter


See our cleanup site map for this year's locations.

In coordination with a statewide and global movement, together we'll make a big dent in removing trash and debris from the environment. During Coastal Cleanup Day 2017, volunteers removed 800,000 pounds of trash and recyclables from California's coast and inland waterways in only three hours.

There's power in numbers. Are you looking to take part in Coastal Cleanup Day on a deeper level? We have tons of ways you can participate this year.

Sept 2018

Lisa Owens Viani is on a mission to save wildlife.

White-tailed kite with prey Photo: Dave Harper

A few years ago, Owens Viani experienced a life-changing moment — two young hawks that she had been observing in a nest near her home were found dead, drowned in a swimming pool. Their deaths were the result of eating prey that had been lovingly fed to them by their parents. The prey had been poisoned by rodenticides, poisons used to rid homes and businesses of pests but with disastrous impacts on wildlife and sometimes even pets and children.

Owens Viani vowed to halt this senseless destruction of such magnificent birds. She started locally, asking stores not to carry the worst kinds of rodent poison. However, going from store to store was just not making that much of a difference. So with assistance from Allen Fish, the Director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Owens Viani took the leap and started an organization, "Raptors Are the Solution" or R.A.T.S. Raptors, such as red-tail and Cooper's hawks, are nature's own pest-control officers.

The fight has been long and difficult. Poison manufacturers and many businesses have a vested interest in being able to use rodenticides extensively.

How rodenticides work

Rodenticides are mostly anticoagulants; they block the Vitamin K cycle which is needed for certain blood-clotting proteins. When an animal ingests a lethal dose of the poison, it can slowly - or quickly, depending on the poison - bleed to death internally. This is an excruciatingly painful way to die.

Before it dies, the poisoned animal becomes desperately thirsty and may go out in the open to search for water. In a weakened condition, the animal becomes easy prey to larger animals that are in turn poisoned. When a mouse dies of rodenticide poisoning, that is a primary poisoning. If your cat eats mice with poison in their systems and dies, your cat has died of secondary poisoning. If a coyote eats a lot of mice and is then eaten by a mountain lion, who has also eaten other poisoned critters, then the death of the mountain lion is tertiary poisoning. And yes, it happens - a lot. A wildlife report in 2014 stated that in the Santa Monica Mountains, "11 of 12 mountain lions tested positive for exposure and two died from poisoning, 93 of 105 bobcats tested positive for exposure and 70 died from related secondary disease, and 20 of 24 coyotes tested positive for exposure and 12 died from poisoning." (National Park Service, National Wildlife Federation Blog)

Even if the poisons do not kill the animal, they can make it seriously ill. For example, a new study shows a strong link between anti-coagulants and immune system impacts such as mange in bobcats.

How NOT to poison nature

The simple fact is that when we use rodenticides, we are poisoning the food web. We are killing the very creatures who could help to control the rodents we are trying to eliminate. Owens Viani suggests different approaches that are not only better for the ecosystem but also more effective long-term in controlling rodent pests.

The approach I like the best is putting up a Barn Owl box. One Barn Owl can eat up to 1,000 rodents a year. During breeding season, a family can consume over 3,000 rodents. You can imagine the fast build-up of poisons if only a fraction of those rodents have been chomping on rodenticide-laden food pellets. As a result, Owens Viani cautions that you talk to your neighbors first, so that they don't use rat poison and inadvertently poison the owls you have so carefully attracted to your Barn Owl box. In fact, if you live near Golden Gate Park, you might still ask your neighbors not to use rat poison, as there are often other owls nesting in the park.

Other anti-rodent suggestions include removing plants such as ivy that rodents can hide in, not leaving pet food outdoors, using snap traps where other animals cannot be caught in them, tying garbage bags securely, and keeping dumpsters closed at all times (duh). You might wonder if this really works. According to the Marin County IPM (Integrated Pest Management) guide to controlling rodents, "Eliminate food and rats will relocate."

If you use a pest control company, ask them not to use poisons — if they say their baits are not poisonous, one wildlife expert suggests that you ask them to lick the bait in front of you. That should answer that question!

With help from like-minded wildlife conservationists and over 40 wildlife organizations, R.A.T.S. now has an extensive website ( and chapters in other parts of California.

It has been a long struggle but not without rewards. Owens Viani was just inducted into the World Owl Hall of Fame.

At the end of our interview, Owens Viani stated, "I am not giving up this fight."

What you can do

Don't use rat poison! Follow the Marin IPM guide (Marin County Pest Specific IPM Plan for Rats). Write to your state assembly person and ask them to support AB 2242 (Bloom) to get poisons out of nature's system! Sierra Club has a site dedicated to wildlife protection - sign up! Sierra Club California CNRCC wildlife Committee

Katherine Howard is a member of the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

April 2018

San Francisco Estuary - love it or lose it

Photo: Eddie Bartley

San Francisco Bay is the largest estuary on the western coasts of both North and South America. For those of us new to this terminology, an estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea. In other words, a great deal of the land/water interface in San Francisco Bay is Estuary.

At the State of the San Francisco Estuary Conference at the Scottish Rite Center in October, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership presented one-time-only Legacy Awards to two people who have spent years on protecting the Bay — Arthur Feinstein and Barbara Salzman. I sat down with Feinstein over tea and bagels before a recent Sierra Club meeting. (He is on the Executive Committee for the SF Group and the SF Bay Chapter as well as the State Conservation Committee.) Feinstein has been involved in Bay conservation work for over 40 years. During our conversation, it became clear that his knowledge of both the Bay and its wildlife is, to say the least, extensive.

Every time a duck is disturbed and has to fly away, that duck is using up precious energy that it needs for the return trip up north. For those of us who have seen park ducks, their actions are a little different — many return to the same area and become accustomed to disturbances. But the birds in the open Bay do not."

The health of our Estuary is vital to the survival of water-dependent wildlife. Many shorebirds go to the Arctic to breed in summer, but in winter they return south. As shorebirds migrate, often distances of 1,500 or 3,000 miles and some even 12,000 miles, many stop to feed and replenish their energies at various sites along the west coast. SF Bay attracts the largest number of the west coast group over the migrating season - sometimes as many as a million birds over the course of a year.

The birds are attracted by the abundant and varied food supply available in the estuary. As fresh water flows from streams into the Bay, it meets the salt water that has entered due to tidal action. Brackish water results where the two meet and mix. Each type of water - fresh, brackish and salt - creates a unique habitat that provides both food and shelter for the birds.

Over 40 years ago, Feinstein found himself involved in the lives of the Bay's water birds. It was the mid-1980's and Feinstein was volunteering with the Golden Gate Audubon Society. He learned of the serious need to expand the SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the adjacent Uplands. His intense interest in the Bay resulted in a job with the Citizens' Committee to Complete the Refuge. Over the course of seven years, he met scientists and staff from California Fish and Game. As he learned more about the threats to habitat, he became passionate about protecting the Bay and its wildlife. He then spent years working with various groups and public agencies in an effort first to stop the additional loss of wetlands, and then to mold new development to protect the existing habitat and expand the wetland areas.

Feinstein still finds that there is much to do to protect the wildlife in our Bay. For example, large development projects are currently proposed for San Francisco's India Basin area. The current India Basin Environmental Impact Report (EIR) recognizes that more recreational users, such as kayakers and kayak launches, could "affect foraging, roosting, and nesting shorebirds..." and that " such an increased human presence in tidal marsh and open water habitat at India Basin could affect shorebird behavior, thereby reducing breeding success. ." However, the EIR then goes on to say that since the existing habitat conditions are already so poor, and since the new development may restore some tidal marshland and add new tidal marshland (less than one acre), this will "offset any potential impacts on nesting birds from recreational users." (EIR, part II, page 280.)

One problem with the report is that it ignores the impact on ducks. Ducks are particularly sensitive to any disturbance of their surroundings. Every time a duck is disturbed and has to fly away, that duck is using up precious energy that it needs for the return trip up north. For those of us who have seen park ducks, their actions are a little different — many return to the same area and become accustomed to disturbances. But the birds in the open Bay do not. Feinstein described 'dead zones' around ferry landings and regular boat routes across the bay, which ducks avoid out of self-preservation.

Another problem is the short-term view in the EIR. We need to plan not only for replacement habitat for what is destroyed, but also for greatly increased habitat to offset past damage to wildlife populations, as well as the upcoming sea level rise. Sea level rise estimates keep, well, rising — to where the possibility of a 10 foot sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay is now being discussed.

What will be the impact on existing wildlife populations, how can we protect them and provide adequate habitat, and how is that balanced against the needs to protect the communities surrounding the Bay? These are complex issues that Feinstein has been working on for years, and will continue to do so.

If you would like to help, you can:

Write to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission ( Ask them to please consider ducks and shorebirds in the India Basin Plan and support winter closure for kayaking and other recreational activities that make it harder for the wildlife to thrive. Contact Arthur Feinstein if you would like to learn more: (415) 680 - 0643.

Katherine Howard is an open space advocate who is also on the Executive Committee of the SF Group of the Sierra Club.

December 2017

Smart housing policy must include public input and taking care of the environment

For the last year, legislators have been debating new housing legislation —both state and local —to meet the pressing needs of California's growing population. One of our local newspapers regularly features articles (and even political cartoons!) beating the drum in favor of building as much housing as possible in San Francisco.

Yes, it is important to face the state's affordable housing crisis head-on — having a decent home for everyone is critical. But as we work to meet that need, it is also important to ensure that the environment is not harmed and that the community has a say in projects that will impact them.

The costs associated with dealing with the pollution will fall on taxpayers and local governments, instead of on the responsible parties."

Creating vibrant urban communities requires a strong commitment to protecting the quality of urban life. Some of the features shared by healthy urban communities include convenient public open spaces, parks, playgrounds, and natural "unimproved" spaces. Creating these communities must also involve a commitment to preserving existing affordable housing, preventing displacement of low and moderate income residents, protecting cultural heritage, providing efficient public transit, and sheltering existing communities from unreasonable economic and physical disruption.

But when there is a lot of pressure for one set of needs — in this case housing — there is the temptation to ignore other needs. There is a tendency to say that 'just for this project' it is acceptable for the developer to ignore the need to carefully consider the impact on the environment and the local community.

One such short-sighted idea currently being discussed is to allow projects to be approved "by-right" and, in the process, to bypass environmental review now mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The California Environmental Quality Act was passed in 1970 as part of a national wave of environmental protection legislation. CEQA requires project sponsors to disclose the environmental impacts of their proposed projects to the public, to accept public comments, and then to mitigate those impacts. Moreover, CEQA empowers members of the public to legally challenge the adequacy of the environmental reviews.

The Sierra Club strongly supports the power of the people to participate in the development of regulations, plans, and evaluation criteria at every level of decision-making for their communities. Public input under the environmental review process can actually make projects better!

San Franciscans have a right to know what is going on in their city and to have a say in local planning decisions. Legislation that lets housing projects bypass the CEQA process is not fair to our community, to our environment, nor to the very people for whom it claims to be providing housing. Bypassing environmental review can lead to greater congestion and associated increases in air and water pollution, loss of habitat, and loss of yet more species. Our new community members will be the ones paying the price of the resulting poor environmental decisions.

Thoughtful city and regional planning with environmental protections is the best way to provide housing for people now and for a planet we can all call home for future generations. In San Francisco, CEQA and environmental review must be a vital part of that planning.

What you can do:

Currently SB35 (Wiener) is before the California legislature. This legislation allows local governments to ignore CEQA and bypass environmental review for certain types of housing projects. This can potentially lead to increases in air and water pollution, increases in habitat loss, and prevent the public from having access to information about negative impacts to their health. The costs associated with dealing with the pollution will fall on taxpayers and local governments, instead of on the responsible parties.

Please write to your state senator and assemblypersons and ask them to amend this legislation to require environmental reviews under CEQA.

Katherine Howard is a parks advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club. Susan Vaughan is a public transportation advocate and member of the Executive Committee, SF Group, Sierra Club.

September 2017