Skip to main content
By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

SFO becomes the first airport to enact a plastic water bottle ban, but reactions from travelers are mixed

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Plastic water bottles are a thing of the past at San Francisco International Airport.

As of Tuesday, the airport’s shops, restaurants, lounges, vending machines or other retailers are no longer allowed to sell the bottles under a new policy. Instead, passengers are encouraged to bring their own containers and refill them with filtered water at roughly 100 “hydration stations” around the facility. Water in other containers, such as aluminum or glass, can also be sold.

The airport announced the decision to ban the sale of the bottles earlier this month as part of a larger zero-waste initiative and in compliance with a 2014 city ordinance, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. On Tuesday, the airport’s website included a reminder to “BYO reusable B” and the official Twitter account retweeted news about the restriction.

Airport spokesman Doug Yakel said airport administrators believe it is the first to put such a ban in place, though they are hearing from officials at other airports who are interested in making the same move. He said the hope is that more will follow suit.

Although public reaction has mostly been positive, the news has resulted in some disgruntled business travelers who bristle at the inconvenience of having one more item to pack, while proponents of the ban think it doesn’t go far enough. Sodas, juices and flavored water can still be sold in plastic bottles.

“So, what they’re saying is we should drink more soda?” asked one man on Twitter.

This giant hotel chain is getting rid of single-use toiletries to cut plastic waste

Yakel said in an email that the ban applies only to water bottles for now because there are so many alternatives available.

“SFO has about 100 hydration stations that dispense free filtered water, and the availability of water that’s been bottled in something besides plastic continues to grow,” he said. “This trend has yet to make its way to flavored beverages, but we’re hopeful it does in the coming years.”

As alternatives to plastic expand into those types of drinks, he said the airport would consider extending the plastic ban.

The airport’s announcement came a few days after hotel giant InterContinental Hotels Group said it would stop using miniature bottles of toiletries such as shampoo and lotion across its portfolio of brands, which amounts to nearly 843,000 rooms in more than 5,600 hotels. Instead, the company’s hotels will offer those products through bulk dispensers in a change expected to eliminate 200 million bottles worth of waste a year.

Last year, travel companies and cities jumped on a different plastic ban-wagon, announcing they would eliminate or significantly reduce the use of plastic straws.

Rachel McCaffery, director of Travel Without Plastic, said in an email that more airports are trying to reduce single-use plastics, but San Francisco is the first that she’s aware of to ban the sale of water bottles altogether.

“Travel Without Plastic welcomes the news that San Francisco Airport is taking action to reduce single-use plastic waste,” she said. “This is a move that will be welcomed by increasing numbers of travelers, concerned at the impact plastic is having on the environment. There is still more to do though and we’d encourage all other businesses involved in travel and tourism to identify where they can easily reduce plastics, make these changes and plan how to reduce plastic in the more challenging areas.”

Read more:

Slowly but steadily, the travel industry cuts its ties to disposable plastics

Rome tests recycling bottles for transit cash

What is ‘green travel,’ anyway? A beginner’s guide to eco-friendly vacation planning.