Despite a 2006 state law that prohibits cities from banning or placing a tax on plastic supermarket bags, San Francisco has crafted an ordinance that requires grocery stores with annual sales of more than $2 million to provide only recyclable paper bags, compostable plastic bags and reusable bags to its customers at checkout.
The ordinance defines a compostable plastic bag as ``a plastic bag that contains no products derived from petroleum,'' and a reusable bag as a bag with handles specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse and made either of cloth or other machine-washable fabric, ``or compostable plastic bags made of durable plastic with handles at least 2.25 mils thick.''
``The ordinance would effectively lead to a ban on plastic bags,'' said Tim James, manager of local government relations for the California Grocers Association in Sacramento.
The state passed a law in August that gives retailers participating in the state-mandated plastic bag-recycling program a pre-emption from any local laws that place fees, bans, levies or restrictions on plastic bags.
``There is no clash with the state law,'' insisted a spokesman for the board of supervisors. ``We are just dealing with compostable bags'' in this legislation.
The Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance was introduced Jan. 23 by supervisor Ross Mirkarimi after supermarket chains - representing 54 stores - failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to demonstrate that they had reduced the number of plastic bags by 10 million in the past year, as part of a voluntary agreement reached in late 2005.
City officials estimate that between 50 million and 150 million plastic grocery bags are distributed in San Francisco each year.
A city spokesman said the Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee will hold hearings on the bill in March, with a scheduled effective date of July 1.
``The intent of the ordinance is to reduce the number of plastic bags in landfills, waste streams and in the bay,'' said another city source.
``The supermarket chains turned in just a fraction of the data and no data on the number of bags recycled,'' even after they were given a one-week extension. The source said that only three of the chains - Safeway, Albertson's and Andronico's - have turned in data, which the source called ``raw and incomplete.''
The Grocers Association expects the eight supermarket chains involved to turn in their data by the end of January to the third-party consultant, Environmental Sciences Associates, which the city hired.
Grocers Association President Peter Larkin said the numbers will show that the San Francisco bag-recycling program has been a big success.
``Their contention that we have not upheld our end of the bargain is simply not true,'' Larkin said. ``We are very proud of what we have accomplished and our preliminary data shows that there has been a remarkable and dramatic reduction in the number of bags used.''
Larkin would not disclose the preliminary data.
``We think the proposed ordinance is premature and potentially damaging to the recycling program in the city and the planned rollout of plastic bag recycling in the state later on this year.''
He also argued that the proposed ordinance would ``be counterproductive to the city and to recycling efforts,'' as bag manufacturers are required by the state law enacted six months ago to place a recycling message on all plastic checkout bags.
Because of the difficulty in distinguishing between compostable plastic bags and conventional plastic bags, ``we would end up with a lot of compostable bags in the recycling bin that would contaminate the recycling stream,'' Larkin said.
Stephanie Barger, executive director of Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif., agreed and said it is an illusion to think that a shift to biodegradable bags is the answer to reducing litter.
``When biodegradable bags get into the ocean, they don't immediately degrade, particularly in cold waters like there are in San Francisco,'' she said.
``They can also mess up recycling streams, and unless they are well-marked, they will be very difficult to distinguish'' from regular plastic bags.
She said she is disappointed in how the ordinance was crafted because ``it encourages producers and distributors not to have any responsibility for the products they use or make.''
Barger added: ``We can't just consume, consume, consume and dispose, dispose, dispose. We are kind of putting a Band-Aid on a problem, but not fixing it. We consume too much, it's all disposable and no one is responsible.''
Still, she applauded the city for its effort and also said she believes each city needs to address the issues unique to its community.
``For our state to take away local control is unbelievable,'' Barger said. ``We are very disappointed with the governor and his administration over that.''