SF Village partners with USF to target plastic pollution

Members of SF Village advocate for transparent labels for plastic products. PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

From one generation to the next, older San Franciscans are looking to partner with college students in creating a world less reliant on plastic. Consumers have been recycling for years, but only about 9% of what goes in the blue bins actually gets recycled. At SF Village, the elderly are helping young people redesign a plastic-less world. 

SF Village is a local membership organization that connects San Franciscans over the age of 60 with the resources they need to live independently, and also enables them to advocate for issues that they are most passionate about. They have a commitment to social justice, and strive to empower their members to be active in their communities, fostering intergenerational relationships and change. 

One of the issues that SF Village has focused on is combatting the climate crisis both locally and on a larger scale.

SF Village began partnering with students from SFSU in late 2022, and recently began collaborating with USF students on the Plastics Labeling Project (PLP). “The students [at SFSU] have been doing the [scientific] research: what exactly are plastics, what are petroplastics, what are bioplastics,” said Frances Payne, a member of the team at SF Village. 

PLP is still in its initial phase, with students from SFSU, SF Village, and Jasper Shao, a fourth-year environmental studies major at USF, contributing to the research efforts. The students are identifying the largest producers of petrochemical plastic and brainstorming ideas for the PLP’s eventual policy proposal. 

David Silver, the chair of environmental studies, was approached by SF Village about partnering the residents with college students, and saw an opportunity for his environmental studies capstone students. “It was a perfect match,” he said. The SF Village members who run the project pitched their idea to Silver’s class, recruiting Shao. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm [from USF students] and we’re looking forward to a longer and broader relationship as time goes on,” said Payne.

A big part of PLP’s plan is to encourage mandated labels on plastic products to include the time it will take for a piece of plastic to break down, drawing consumers attention to the permanence of their purchase and demanding accountability from the product manufacturers. The team wants to reverse years of misinformation about recycling that contributes to what National Geographic called “the plastic pollution crisis.”  

“The whole purpose of putting [these] labels is to change our perception of plastic,” said Sterling. “Change it from the idea of recycling to the idea that [plastic] should not be here at all.”

The project doesn’t have an official website or social media. PLP’s goal is to draft an in depth proposal that outlines the ramifications of petrochemical plastics, their environmental impacts, and proposed labeling solutions, built on the research of college students, and to bring it to legislators. The group compared the labeling initiative to the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, which mandated health warnings on cigarette cartons and is thought to have decreased the prevalence of smoking.

“This project isn’t like others I have done, where the only thing it can affect is my GPA or my grade in a class,” said Shao. “I know that this project, if done correctly, could have a big impact on our journey toward sustainability.”

The SF Village members are thinking big too. “Our ambition is to have [proposed plastic labeling] eventually become law; local, state, federal, and planetary,” said Michele Sterling, the Creative Officer on SF Village’s side of the project. 

The world’s reliance on plastic is intrinsically linked to the fossil fuel industry. According to the World Economic Forum, “The fossil fuel industry, in particular, has been attempting to diversify its revenues by investing in plastics and using those revenues to subsidize the large fixed-cost infrastructure built around oil refineries.” 

“Plastics is plan b for the petrochemical companies,” said Bill Haskell, a member of SF Village involved in the project. “The more that we electrify our transportation, the more we reduce the reliance on oil and gas in this country, the more petrochemical companies are going to move to producing more plastic.” 

The generational knowledge of SF Village puts society’s  relationship with plastic in perspective.

“The concept of disposable was not even on our radar when I was young,” said almost 90-year-old Payne. “Disposable was also seen as wasteful,” said Sterling. “But now waste is a good thing, getting rid of something.” The SF Village members attribute this shift to a reliance on convenience. “Convenience has taken over from responsibility,” said Haskell.

The generational diversity of the project is important to both groups. They have been inspired by Third Act, an organization that works with older adults in climate change activism. “I was worried about the difficulties of working with elderly [people], the age gap, the potential scheduling conflict, and being able to communicate clearly with them and receive their ideas clearly as well, but that was not the case,” said Shao, who described the culture of the project as caring and experienced. 

“It’s an intergenerational effort to make a change in the world, which I think is very exciting,” said Haskell.

Students who wish to get involved with SF Village can email Frances Payne at francesrp@sbcglobal.net

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *