San Francisco moves to dispose of plastic bags

San Francisco Considers Grocery Bag Tax
San Francisco shoppers like this man could soon see plastic bags replaced by biodegradable ones.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The generation-old checkout counter question of paper or plastic could get a bit more complicated if city lawmakers ban plastic grocery bags.

Angered by what they see as a weak effort by supermarkets to cut down on the use of plastic bags, six local lawmakers want the city to prohibit large 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 rate payers."

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 the nation of Bangladesh and at least 30 remote Alaskan villages already do. Furniture giant IKEA is charging five cents a plastic bag at its U.S. stores.

Mayor backs idea
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.

Grocery stores that participated in the voluntary effort handed out 7.6 million fewer plastic sacks to shoppers in 2006 than the year before, according to the California Grocers Association.

The tally not only was short of the 10 million bag target eight supermarket chains and city officials had set, but could not be independently verified, said Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

Biodegradable cons and pros
Peter Larkin, president of the grocers association, disputed that the voluntary program was a failure requiring a mandatory ban.

Compelling more than 50 grocery stores to make the switch would also cause more environmental harm as baffled consumers mix biodegradable bags with regular plastic bags in recycling bins, contaminating recycled plastic, Larkin argued.

"You would end up with a situation where non-grocery stores are using regular plastic bags and the consumers will never be able to tell the difference or segregate the waste stream," he said. "We think it is going to confuse consumers and do damage to our efforts to recycle more."

Westlund countered that besides eliminating the petroleum and natural gas by-products used to make plastic bags and reducing landfill clutter, mandating a move to biodegradable bags would make it easier for residents to recycle food scraps with yard waste.

The city already has a curbside pickup program for food compost, but many residents don't participate because of the mess, Westlund said. "These (biodegradable) bags would allow people to put food scraps in and tie if off neatly at no additional cost," he said.

If approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors next week, the measure would take effect in six months.