San Francisco Environment Department

Guiding Environmental Principles

The San Francisco Department of the Environment strives to reduce the impacts of harmful chemicals on people and the environment.

When substances or practices pose a threat to health and safety, the department offers suggestions on how to avoid them and use safer alternatives. The department’s recommendations are guided by the Precautionary Principle, Green Chemistry, and Extended Producer Responsibility.

Precautionary Principle

Finding conclusive research about the harmful effects of a given product or chemical is often difficult. The information available to the public can range from very little to plentiful yet conflicting. Given the difficulty of determining risk, San Francisco was the first city to adopt the Precautionary Principle.

The Precautionary Principle asserts that in the absence of conclusive proof that something is harmful, the burden lies with the producer to prove that it is safe. 

A precautionary approach does not merely ask whether a product is safe: It also asks whether the product is necessary in the first place.  A precautionary approach seeks to minimize harm by using the best available science to identify safer, cost-effective alternatives. It urges people in the know to not wait for absolute scientific proof of health or safety risk to acknowledge potential harm.

The Precautionary Principle is the first chapter of San Francisco’s Environment Code, which authorizes the City to identify products, ingredients, and activities that may harm human health or the environment. The San Francisco Department of the Environment uses outreach to create public awareness about these threats and recommends healthy alternatives to them.

* Chapter 1: Precautionary Principle Policy Statement, San Francisco Environment Code (American Legal Publishing)

Green Chemistry

More than 100,000 chemicals are approved for use in products, but fewer than 10 percent of these have complete human health and environmental impacts information. Even less is known about how these chemicals interact with each other.

Green Chemistry is a set of design principles that chemists can follow to reduce or eliminate the use and production of hazardous substances, leading to safer products and processes.

Based on these principles, California has adopted Safer Consumer Products regulations that will govern how and which chemicals can be introduced and used in goods sold in California.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

What happens to products once they have been used? Can the product be recycled? Does the product contain hazardous waste? 

Extended Producer Responsibility states that the manufacturer bears responsibility for the product throughout its entire lifecycle, even after a consumer has used it and disposed of it. 

Financial and end of life responsibility lies with the manufacturer to incorporate environmental considerations into the design and packaging of products, ensuring that once the useful life of a product is over, it can be disposed of responsibly, safely and easily.

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