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MAY 2007

San Francisco bans plastic grocery bags

San Francisco, California is the first city to pass a ban on plastic grocery bags in pharmacies and supermarkets. The law, passed 10-1 by city officials, requires large stores and pharmacies to offer customers a choice between paper bags that are more easily recyclable, newer plastic bags made out of biodegradable materials, or the customer’s own reusable cloth bags.

Although San Francisco is the first city in the United States to adopt such a policy, according to Ross Mirkarimi, the city legislator who pushed the ban, “Many [foreign] cities and nations have already implemented very similar legislation. It’s astounding that San Francisco would be the first United States city to follow suit.” This legislation is Mirkarimi’s second effort at cleaning up bag pollution. His first try was a 2005 attempt to have a 15 cent per bag tax passed.

According to the city’s Department of the Environment, San Francisco stores use an estimated 181 million plastic bags annually. Mirkarimi asserts that this ban will save upwards of 450,000 gallons of oil, as well as do away with 1,400 tons of new landfill material per year.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom also supported the ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags, explaining that he and many other people saw far too many of the bags littering the streets of the city and polluting the waters. He hopes that by putting this measure into effect, it will go a long way towards helping the city become more environmentally oriented. The switch is scheduled to take place in six months for grocery stores and in one year for pharmacies.

The measure was staunchly opposed by the 50 or so stores that would be most affected by the ban. They argued that the required plastic bags, made from a corn byproduct, are new, untested, and most of all, expensive. Some of these stores are considering offering only paper bags. Another option might be to adopt the relatively new practice used by some overseas stores of charging customers per bag at the checkout counter.

Should these stores reject the new biodegradable bags as infeasible, that could greatly increase the number of paper bags consumed which would raise environmental issues of a new sort. And so the great bag debate continues, but for the time being the question “paper or plastic?” may become a thing of the past.


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