San Francisco Ban on Plastic Bags

Chinese Herbalist

A.P. San Francisco Ponders Ban on Plastic Bags
Angered by what they see as a weak effort by supermarkets to cut use of plastic bags, six local lawmakers want the city to prohibit grocers from giving out the ubiquitous sacks blamed for eating up fossil fuel, littering streets and choking wildlife.

“San Francisco is poised to be the first U.S. city to ratchet up its response against global warming,” said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who crafted the measure scheduled to be heard by a legislative committee on Thursday. “By doing so, we will save millions of dollars for city coffers and for our refuse ratepayers.”

Internationally, discouraging plastic bag use already has caught on in parts of South Africa, Ireland and Taiwan, where authorities either tax shoppers who use them or impose fees on companies that distribute them. Paris, Zanzibar and Rwanda are moving to ban plastic bags, while Bangladesh and at least 30 remote Alaskan villages already do.

The legislation under consideration in San Francisco would require grocery stores that do more than $2 million in sales a year to offer customers only bags made of recyclable paper, plastic that can be turned into compost, or sturdy cloth or plastic that can be used repeatedly.

The proposed law also calls for penalties against grocers who do not comply. Violators could be assessed fines ranging from $100 to $500 for multiple offenses, and the city attorney would be authorized to seek additional compensation and enforcement orders.

Mirkarimi proposed the ban, which has been endorsed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, after city leaders accused several large grocery chains of reneging on a 2005 agreement to reduce plastic bag use as an alternative to a 17-cent per bag tax.

A few years ago while we were advertising consultants to a paper bag manufacturer (since merged with other companies hence I can talk about them), we had a discussion with one of the largest national grocery chains, and learned that they (and presumedly other national chains) were resistant to making paper bags an option for consumers because they had spent years convincing shoppers that plastic bags were better and more convenient.

Plastic costs about half (fluctuates drastically depending upon resin costs, etc.) or a third of paper. Of course, paper bags hold three to five times the amount of plastic, and paper bags are more readily recycled (and reused around the house), especially if the paper bag has handles, such as certain boutique stores use (Raley's, Whole Foods, Marsh, etc.), but in many stores, you have to ask to receive paper bags. The chain mentioned above hid the paper in the back office: even if a consumer did ask for paper, the bagger would have to go and fetch them - consumers often would just say, “never mind”, and take plastic.

More and more plastic bags are manufactured in massive factories in China six or eight months in advance, and are shipped to warehouses. Paper manufacturers are no environmental mavens either, but pulp wood is more sustainable than a petroleum byproduct such as plastic bags. We use our paper bags to recycle newspapers, and as storage. On average, our paper bags are used three times.

From CNN:

Over the objections of local supermarkets, including Safeway and Albertsons, San Francisco is on the verge of passing a city law that would require supermarkets to provide compostable bags - made from paper, corn or potato starch - instead of plastic. Los Angeles officials are studying the impact of plastic bags on marine life, as a prelude to action.

Businesses are taking up the issue. The Swedish home furnishings store Ikea says that, starting March 15, it will charge 5 cents for plastic bags, and sell reusable cloth bags at cost, for 59 cents, as part of its “Bag the Plastic Bag” initiative. Ikea will donate the 5 cents that it gets for each plastic bag to the non-profit American Forests to plant trees.

What's wrong with plastic bags? Lots. They often wind up as litter, or in trees. They drift into oceans and rivers and kill fish. They can take 1,000 years to decompose. And every time we use a plastic bag, we drive up the demand for oil - which is used to make plastics.

According to EPA, which has a which has a Webpage about shopping bags, the U.S. consumes about 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps a year. Fewer than 5 percent are recycled.

The grocery store and plastics industries have launched voluntary efforts to reduce plastic bag usage, training employees to pack more goods into each bag. Hilex Poly Co., a big plastic bag firm based in South Carolina, gives its retail customers booklets called “How to Use Fewer Bags” and promotes recycling - a sign that the industry is worried about a backlash, since not many companies try to get customers to use less of what they make.

In San Francisco, Jared Blumenfeld, the city's environment director, recommended action against plastic bags after a city study found that less than 1 percent of plastic bags handed out by supermarkets are recycled. San Francisco officials first proposed a 17 cent tax, but the industry blocked that effort at the state level.)

Blumenfeld is now pushing for compostable bags because they can be collected with the food waste that the city already recycles and makes into compost.

Plastic bags are unnecessary and a “really, really huge litter issue for the city,” Blumenfeld says. It costs taxpayers $90 every time a city worker in a cherry-picker goes out to remove plastic bags from a tree.
Danny Schrager, the president of Mountain Valley Recycling, a Florida-based company that recycles plastics for Wal-Mart, says retailers and consumers should both take responsibility for the recycling of bags. He says every retailer who gives away bags should agree to take them back, and that consumers should support curbside recycling as well.

He says there's enough demand for recycled plastic to absorb a much bigger supply - his firm's resins, made from recycled plastics, can be made into shopping carts, carry baskets, trash pails and a host of other consumer products. “If a retailer provides both the supply and demand, the programs become long-term and sustainable,” Schrager says. This is called closed-loop recycling.

In a surprisingly entertaining book about packaging called “Paper or Plastic? Searching for Solutions to an Overpackaged World” (Sierra Club Books, 2005), Daniel Imhoff digs into the “paper or plastic” question to illuminate the environmental impact of each choice:

“Do we clearcut forests, grind them to chips, and pulp and bleach them with chlorine-based compounds (generally carcinogenic byproducts) to make boxes, bags and to-go cups primarily for one-time use?” he writes. That's paper.

“Or do we make a pact with demon hydrocarbon, refining ancient sunlight into light, easily compactible bottles, wraps and foams?” That's plastic.

His answer? Neither.

“Use cloth bags,” Imhoff told me. “Have a bunch of them, and keep them in your car.”

Yes, it takes a little planning but “if we can't solve these problems by making little changes, we're really in trouble.”

update: San Fran bags are officially fragged today, by 10-1 vote.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on March 15, 2007 6:56 AM.

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