Don't expect the controversy in San Francisco over plastic checkout bags and the effort to mandate compostable bags to end any time soon, as the acrimonious discord and the lack of direct communication between the city and grocers appears to be getting worse.
Just two days after the California Grocers Association in Sacramento belatedly - and elatedly - reported that seven grocery chains used 7.6 million fewer bags last year, the city blasted the data submitted as "largely incomplete and unverifiable."
In a phone interview Jan. 31, Mark Westlund, director of public affairs for the Department of the Environment, said the city's third-party consultant, Environmental Service Associates, told the city it "could not verify any reduction in the number of bags."
Westlund said none of the stores had used the required data-submission form and only the data from Safeway Stores could be verified. He said the stores, except for Safeway's eight sites in the city, had failed to provide "records such as invoices, order forms and shipping manifests that verify the information" supporting their bag-reduction claims, even though the form specifically requests that data. He said confidentiality agreements prevented the city from releasing the data from Safeway.
The form additionally requests information on the effectiveness of having recycling bins at stores, the sale or giveaway of cloth or reusable bags, the use of credits given to customers who bring their own bags and the training of checkout baggers.
The supermarkets had pledged 15 months ago to reduce annual bag usage by 10 million as part of a voluntary agreement in which city officials withdrew a proposed 17 cent-per-bag tax. The initiative was part of a city goal to reduce by 75 percent materials that are sent to landfills by 2010 and curtail a marine litter problem.
Since the agreement was signed, California signed into law in August a mandated bag-recycling program that prevents communities from banning or taxing retailers participating in the program.
The chains' failure to meet an original deadline of Dec. 31 to report the data had prompted city supervisor Ross Mirkarimi to introduce an ordinance Jan. 23 that would mandate the use of compostable plastic bags, reusable bags or recyclable paper bags at checkout counters. Mirkarimi said he would push forward with his initiative, regardless of the outcome of the bag-reduction efforts, because it would give the city "a long-term, sustaintable" approach to reducing litter.
Dave Heylen, CGA vice president of communications, said association officials were not aware that the city had rejected the data submitted - done in the form of a Jan. 30 memo to Mayor Gavin Newson and the CGA from Jared Blumenfeld, director of the Environment Department.
"This is news to us," Heylen said.
CGA President Peter Larkin said in a news release that the numbers grocers had compiled underscored that the voluntary program "has proven to be a huge success" and that grocers that participated "should be applauded for their leadership, hard work and commitment to the environment." CGA did not disclose the total number of bags handed out in 2006, but the city estimated that between 50 million and 150 million plastic checkout bags are distributed in the city each year.
And while Larkin asserted that grocers had exceeded their goal by almost 2 million bags - since the number of stores that ended up participating was 32, not the expected 57 - the voluntary agreement suggests otherwise. The pact specifies a reduction of 10 million bags, regardless of the number of stores participating.
Larkin said the city needs to expand the voluntary program to more supermarkets and to drugstores, dry cleaners and take-out restaurants.
"If we are really serious about reducing bag use and increasing recycling efforts, we need to ensure that all merchants who use plastic bags are part of the solution," he said. "With their participation, we could collectively reduce and recycle millions of additional bags per year."