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True Cost: The plastic bag makes its case

Under CC license from Flickr user katerha

In February, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the expansion of our existing ban on plastic, single-use bags. By October of this year, we could see fewer plastic bags in our stores and landfills, as the law further cuts down on distribution. The stricter ordinance going into effect on October 1 will implement the same ban on restaurants, hardware stores, gift shops and virtually all retailers in the city, but it won’t stop there.

To discourage the use of single-use bags altogether, there will also be a 10-cent charge if you take a bag at checkout—plastic, paper, or compostable. Consumers aren’t going to be the only ones paying for adding to our city-wide footprint; stores will be fined $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second, and $500 for any subsequent violations. The “paper or plastic” dilemma we all faced will be a question of the past, but there’s one question we’re not asking enough: Is the ban helping our planet?

In 2007, then Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi trumpeted the city’s plastic bag ban.

“San Francisco is poised to be the first city in the United States to move forward in legislation of this type,” he said. “This is revolutionary and yet it’s very simplistic on the face.”

In 2009, then Mayor Gavin Newsom backed his ten-year green plan. He told Current TV: “We have a goal of zero-waste and as audacious as it seems, I’m absolutely convinced we’ll get there. So I’ve gotten rid of styrofoam takeout containers. That’s why we’ve been aggressive on the water bottle issue more than any other city in America. That’s why we’ve banned plastic bags, and that’s been replicated across the planet – including China – not just across the state of California.”

Green’s always been “go” in San Francisco. Mandatory recycling and composting has allowed the city to exceed its goal of diverting three quarters of materials away from landfills. Plastic-reducing environmental policies regularly meet unanimous approval. There’s overwhelming support from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the California Grocers Association, the SF Small Business Commission. But here’s the thing: the initiatives aren’t necessarily better for the environment.

Stephen Joseph is Counsel for the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition. Time Magazine has called him “the Patron Saint of Plastic Bags.”

“San Francisco hasn’t done any kind of study on the environmental impacts of plastic or paper or reusable bags. Never,” Joseph says. “Paper is much worse for the environment than plastic – many times worse – and San Francisco had not taken that into account.”

Paper bags are bulky, compared with plastics. Estimates say paper bags take more than twice the landfill space.

Joseph says, “We have to take steps to reduce paper in landfills, because plastic doesn’t decompose in a landfill, which is a good thing. I mean, the environmentalists shriek when I say that. You don’t want anything decomposing in a landfill because it turns into greenhouse gases when it does.”

Plastic bags take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to break down. The American Progressive Bag Alliance found in 2007 that paper bags emit two to three times more greenhouse gases than their plastic counterparts. The same study concludes that paper bags take four times as much energy to make as plastic bags. In reality, however, the typical modern landfill lacks essential elements like light and oxygen, so degradation doesn’t happen the way we intend it to. A lot of the times, it doesn’t happen.

Plastic bags are definitely a problem, but paper is not the solution. A more viable plan is initiating a trend toward reusing, and that’s the next environmental frontier for the city of San Francisco.

San Francisco’s Office of Small Business Director Regina Dick-Endrizzi comments: “We’re not saying that businesses can’t provide a bag. There will just be a minimal charge for it.”

Still, Stephen Joseph thinks the measures go too far. His Save the Plastic Bag Coalition is filing a lawsuit against the city for not presenting an Environmental Impact Report.

Joseph says, “In the sense that a paper bag fee is being charged, 10 cents is better than zero, but it’s nowhere near enough. But the bigger problem with all of this is: why are they banning plastic bags in the first place? Is it really necessary? Is it good for the environment? Is there a real problem with plastic bags? The city’s not going to ban its way out of a litter problem. Simple as that.”

I meet Save The Bay’s Policy Associate Allison Chan in Golden Gate Park, one of few places in the city where refuse doesn’t litter the streets. She tells me: “The data published by the Ocean Conservancy every year shows that plastic bags are consistently at the top of the list. So, you can't make that up. You also can't make up the fact that we're finding wildlife ingesting these products and that our cities are finding them clogging our storm drains and that's actually an expense to our cities. Not only is this an environmental issue, but this becomes an economic burden for our cities as well.”

It costs the city an estimated $8.5 million per year to manage waste resulting from plastic bags, but things are changing. When a city takes measures to change its citizens’ behavior, it can make a difference. San Francisco has seen 15 percent growth in reusable bag use since 2007. Chan believes people elsewhere are taking notice.

“There are legislators and statewide organizations that are also trying to make sure that plastic bag bans not only happen at the regional level but state-wide as well,” she says.

Rather than paying fees every visit to the store, shoppers may turn to reusable bags. As San Francisco moves forward with legislation and continues searching for waste solutions, the culture of reusing what we already have will be as important as ever to raise our city’s sustainable standards. And the environmental awareness could have a ripple effect. When it comes to landmark policies, what happens in San Francisco doesn’t just stay in San Francisco.