S.F. at forefront of environmental innovation

Apr 22, 2016, 2:07 PM EDT
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
(Source: Richard Heyes/flickr)

April 22 marks Earth Day, with festivals and rallies held in nearly 200 countries. San Francisco is hosting many outdoor events, which is fitting because the city is in many ways the epicenter of environmental progress in the U.S. On Tuesday, the tech-startup hub passed legislation mandating that from January 2017 all new buildings in the city 10 stories or less must have either solar PV or solar thermal panels installed on their rooftops. The city is aiming to source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and rooftops are an under-utilized opportunity.

The city banned plastic bags in 2007, and another local movement is heating up to ban Styrofoam, although – predictably -- industry is against it. However, the sad truth is that only 0.2% of polystyrene foam waste is recycled today. The other 99.8% ends up either in a landfill, where it will take centuries to decompose, or, as is all too common with plastic waste, in our oceans, where birds often mistake the crumbly bits for fish eggs and ingest them. There are some uses, like transporting medical supplies that must be kept securely at a constant temperature, in which Styrofoam is called for. But for most other occasions, like in packaging or serving food, there are much better substitutes available (like recycled paper products).

On a separate note, there's also a campaign gaining momentum for this Earth Day to have Bay Area restaurants voluntarily donate to offset their carbon emissions.

The aims of these green initiatives extend well beyond San Francisco’s city limits. The Bay Area wants to be the catalyst for change in all of California, then hopefully the rest of the U.S. and even abroad.

And speaking of international reach, on Monday the six recipients of the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize (awarded annually to environmental heroes from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions) received their honors in San Francisco. These grassroots activists, hailing from Tanzania, Cambodia, Slovakia, Puerto Rico, the U.S., and Peru, fought powerful interests in order to protect the environment and their communities. For example, the Goldman website notes “In one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists, Leng Ouch went undercover to document illegal logging in Cambodia and exposed the corruption robbing rural communities of their land, causing the government to cancel large land concessions.”

A big part of Earth Day, and S.F.’s green campaigns, is raising awareness. San Francisco can lead by example, but it also has a unique resource to draw upon. Through Silicon Valley, the city can encourage, fund, and collaborate with innovative green tech startups that make positive impacts on the global level.

Let’s celebrate Earth Day, but be mindful that much work remains to be done.

And in the spirit of Earth Day’s emphasis on “reduce, reuse, recycle,” check out Blouin News’ earlier feature, Changing e-waste from liability to asset.