Setting a precedent that could prod other cities into action, San Francisco is scheduled to become the first U.S. city to ban plastic grocery bags, and it may extend that ban to other plastic bags, including those used to deliver newspapers.
The ban was approved by San Francisco's board of supervisors in a 10-1 vote March 27. The action is a response to seven major supermarket chains' failure to reduce bag use voluntarily in 2006, as they had pledged, and the city's desire to reduce the number of plastic bags in landfills, the waste stream and the bay.
The San Francisco Department of the Environment estimates that 181 million plastic grocery bags are distributed annually in the city. An estimated 19 billion are used each year in California.
If a second vote passes April 10, the ban will become effective in six months for grocery stores with sales of more than $2 million. Pharmacies and other retailers with five or more stores will have 12 months to comply.
The ordinance requires the city's largest grocers and retailers to use only recyclable paper bags, reusable cloths bags or compostable plastic bags at checkout counters.
Plastics industry officials argue that the ban disregards the potential negative impact that compostable bags could have on the recycling stream. They said that before passing the ban, the city should wait to gauge the effectiveness of a statewide recycling bag mandate that goes into effect July 1.
``There is a better way to keep plastics out of landfills than a mandate that will cost consumers money and negatively hurt the recycling stream, and that is to get more of those bags into the recycling stream,'' said Donna Dempsey, executive director of the Washington-based Film and Bag Federation, a unit of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
Dempsey said that having recycling bins at stores for plastics bags is a better solution, because 90 percent of consumers already have said they will use them.
Laurie Hansen, an FBF lobbyist, agreed. ``AB 2449, the plastic bag recycling mandate, hasn't even had a chance to go into effect,'' said Hansen, who also represents the Progressive Bag Alliance.
But others argued that the industry's lack of response set the ordinance into motion.
``This is a perfect example of where a community tried to work with retailers and industry, and where the retailers and the industry wouldn't step up to the plate,'' said Stephanie Barger, executive director of Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif. ``I applaud San Francisco for trying to work with the grocery stores first.''
Barger said there has been ``a huge outcry from communities'' since AB 2449 was passed in August because the mandate prevents communities from placing taxes or fees on plastic bags.
``But now San Francisco has set the precedent that we can ban bags,'' she said.
In nearby Richmond, Calif., Mayor Gayle McLaughlin has said Richmond plans to follow San Francisco's lead.
But Hansen said: ``If cities want to work on their solid waste problem, this is not the way to do it, because if they don't have proper composting facilities like San Francisco, it will only be adding to their problem.''
While California is the first U.S. city to enact a plastic bag ban, the tiny Canadian town of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba - 605 miles north of Winnipeg - a week earlier passed a plastic bag ban that takes effect April 2. It is the first such ban in Canada, and other Canadian cities are considering plastic bag-related legislation.
The bans are part of a growing outcry worldwide against plastic bags, and also come amidst a sea of initiatives in California to reduce plastic litter.
Globally, Rwanda, Zanzibar and Bangladesh have banned plastic shopping bags, along with the city of Paris. Taiwan mandates that retailers charge consumers for plastic bags, and a plastic bag tax enacted in Ireland five years ago has reduced their use in that country by 95 percent. Australia is considering a ban, even though several initiatives there have cut plastic bag usage 45 percent between 2002 and 2005.
In India, several plastics associations, environmental agencies and government officials have been ordered to report to the Delhi High Court this week to address the harm plastics waste and packaging can cause to the environment. That order is in response to a request by an Indian environmental organization that an existing law be expanded to require all public and private establishments in the capital city to use only biodegradable bags.
In addition, the California Legislature is looking at several key initiatives aimed at plastics that parallel the recommendation of the California Ocean Protection Council.
The various measures would:
* Phase out plastics packaging that contain styrene, bisphenol-A, perfluorooctanoic acid, vinyl chloride, nonylphenol or alkylphenol.
* Mandate the use of compostable or recyclable packaging for disposable food-service packaging and set mandatory recycling and composting rates for those products.
* Regulate plastics pellets to prevent their discharge into waterways.
* Prohibit all state facilities from selling or distributing expanded PS food containers.
Although San Francisco officials hope stores will replace plastic bags with biodegradable plastic bags, most expect that grocers will switch back to paper, since paper bags cost an estimated 3 cents each vs. 6-10 cents for biodegradable bags.
``Grocers will review all their options and decide what they think works best for them economically,'' said Dave Heylen, spokesman for the Sacramento-based California Grocers Association, which represents 6,000 supermarkets. ``I think retailers will be more inclined to go back to a paper bag, which costs considerably less.''
The plastic recycling industry also sees trouble ahead because of the ban.
``Although the intent of the legislation may be admirable, we believe such legislation will severely impact current recycling efforts and will detrimentally affect a number of industries,'' said Harry Monahan, executive vice president of materials and engineering for Trex Co. Inc. in Winchester, Va. In manufacturing its decking products, Trex recycles 350 million pounds of plastics annually, mostly from plastic bags and stretch pallet wrap.
``This legislation will have a detrimental effect on the recycling of polyethylene, not only in San Francisco, but also well beyond,'' Monahan said in a letter to Ross Mirkarimi, the city supervisor who sponsored the ban.
Monahan pointed out that Trex and other users of recycled polyethylene will not be able to use certain regions as sources of recycled PE if there is a risk of biodegradable bags contaminating the supply.
Toronto-based correspondent Michael Lauzon contributed to this story.