San Francisco is considering a 17 cent tax on each plastic and paper bag used at grocery stores, as a way to reduce litter and cut costs for the city.
The city would be the first in the United States to tax bags, but the action would mirror bag bans and taxes that have blown across the globe from Australia to Ireland. Environmentalists and city officials say the 50 million bags used in San Francisco each year contribute to ocean and beach pollution and cost the city millions of dollars a year to clean up.
The proposal is motivated by environmental concerns, and its goal is to get people to change their shopping habits and bring their own reusable bags, said David Assmann, deputy director of the city agency SF Environment. The city introduced the proposal Nov. 23.
Opponents charge that it would be a regressive tax, hitting the poor the most, but Assmann said people could avoid it by switching to reusable bags. The millions of dollars raised would be split between the city and grocery stores, and used to fund environmental programs.
Industry officials say they oppose a tax, but the city's efforts are prompting them to look at broader voluntary commitments they could make to reduce bag litter, said Donna Dempsey, executive director of the Film and Bag Federation of Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Industry would like to see more collection of plastic bags, because there are markets like plastic lumber that could use all the bags that are collected, said Tim Shestek, a lobbyist in California with the American Plastics Council of Arlington, Va.
Assmann said the city estimates it spends $2 million a year cleaning up plastic bag litter, and he said San Francisco has to spend $1 million at its recycling center because of bag contamination. Ninety percent of the bags are plastic.
The plastic bags gum up the city's recycling machinery, requiring line shutdowns. The city spends $500,000 a year hiring 12 people whose only job is to pull bags from the recyclables stream. The bags also reduce the value of other recyclables the city collects, Assmann said.
Industry officials said they wanted more details on those figures, but they said they questioned other information the city is using to form its policy.
City officials, for example, estimated that it took 12 million barrels of oil a year to make the plastic bags used in San Francisco. But Dempsey said the actual figure is closer to 1 million barrels, and she said that natural gas, not oil, is the primary feedstock for bags in North America.
Shestek said it is difficult to say what the impact of any tax would be, beyond fewer bags sold in San Francisco. But the impact could be larger: City budgets are tight, and other governments are watching closely to see what San Francisco does, Assmann said.
Also, it is possible the fee could go higher. San Francisco's Commission on the Environment postponed an expected vote on the plan Nov. 23, because it was concerned the tax might be too low to cover all of the city's costs.
Observers expect the commission to recommend the tax when it meets in January. The proposal still would have to get approval of the city's Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom, which they say is harder to predict, before it could become law.