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June 2007

End of the road for plastic bags?

Supervisor Mirkarimi distributes reusable bags following a press conference.

San Francisco’s ban on plastic bags in pharmacies and grocery stores – the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance, passed on March 27, and has sparked a national debate.

Similar bans are in the midst of the legislative process in other California areas.

In New York State, State Assemblyman William Colton (D-Brooklyn) has proposed legislation based on the San Francisco model.

San Francisco’s legislation requires establishments to offer customers a choice between paper bags that are more easily r­­­ecyclable and newer plastic bags made out of biodegradable materials. Residents are also encouraged to purchase reusable cloth bags.

Ross Mirkarimi, a San Francisco Supervisor (District 5), the only Green Party member of the Board, who pushed for the ban and sponsored the legislation, succeeded in his second attempt to bring forward regulations.

“Several cities and nations across the globe have already implemented very similar legislation,” he says. It’s astounding that San Francisco would be the first United States city to follow suit.”

Taiwan, South Africa, Rwanda, Bhutan and Bangladesh have passed bans, as has Mumbai (Bombay). Paris will have a ban in force towards the end of 2007, while the rest of the nation follows suit in 2010.

Based on analysis by San Francisco’s Department of the Environment (DOE), city stores distribute an estimated 181 million plastic bags annually. Mirkarimi asserts the 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.

The DOE says that standard plastic bags for grocers cost $.02 to $.03 per bag, while a biodegradable bag costs between from $.05 and $.10.

Grocery stores will have to comply in 4 months and pharmacies in 10 months.

Merchants who opposed the ban argued that the required plastic bags, made from a corn byproduct, are new, untested, and most of all, expensive.

This has led some stores to consider offering only paper bags. Another option might be to charge customers on a per bag basis at the checkout counter.

“Plastic checkout bags are an environmental pariah, and they’re bad for the city’s bottom line,” says Mirkarimi. “We estimate that each year San Francisco’s taxpayers spend in excess of $8 million to clear them from our streets and storm drains, disentangle them from the machinery that sorts our recycling, and, finally, send them to the dump.

“Nationwide the problem is even greater,” he adds. “There are over 100 billion plastic checkout bags distributed through United States retailers each year, and the production of these bags burns up more than 20 million barrels of oil. In the climate of global warming and peak oil, the sheer amount of fossil fuel used to produce this unnecessary commodity is unconscionable.”

According to the DOE, plastic checkout bags are nominally recyclable, but nationwide less than one percent of plastic bags are collected, and just a fraction of that one percent ends up getting made into something else.

Moreover, the DOE says that plastic bags are difficult to make into new bags and that they are mostly down-cycled into products like plastic lumber, which at the end of its usefulness, will likely end up in the landfill.

“Our primary recycling company, Norcal Waste Systems,” says Mirkarimi, “conducted a curbside recycling pilot program, and figured the cost to collect plastic bags would top $4,000 per ton. The resale value, providing you can find a buyer, is about $30 per ton. Aluminum cans by comparison cost $300 per ton to collect, and sell for nearly $5,000.

“Sometimes recycling isn’t the best answer,” he adds. “Municipal recycling and hazardous waste collection programs, if designed to handle every kind of product imaginable, will actually subsidize the production of waste. The companies that manufacture hard-to-manage products like plastic bags and the outlets that distribute them, expect local government to foot the bill - and local government means you and me, the taxpayers.”

San Francisco considered charging a per bag fee to cover the real costs of managing the waste stream, similar to Ireland’s $.15 fee on plastic checkout bags, which led to a decrease in plastic bag consumption by over 90 percent.

“This approach was cut off to us in Sacramento,” says Mirkarimi. “The grocery and bag lobby, at the same time it was engaged in an ultimately failed agreement with the city to reduce plastic bags, helped pass legislation prohibiting local agencies from imposing fees to reduce bag use or recuperate costs associated with plastic bags, or even from asking grocery stores how many bags they use.”

Alaska recently introduced a bill to put a $.15 fee on disposable plastic bags issued by retailers.

On April 10, the Los Angeles County (LAC) Board of Supervisors, passed a resolution that the chief administrative officer work with the Internal Services Department (ISD), and the Department of Public Works (DPW), to solicit input from outside environmental protection organizations, and investigate the issue of polyethylene plastic and paper sack consumption in Los Angeles County. This would include the pros and cons of adopting a policy similar to that of San Francisco, and reporting back to the Board with findings and recommendations to reduce grocery sack waste within 90 days.

The introduction to the Paper Bag and Recycling and Waste Reduction Resolution made a direct link to San Francisco’s legislation, stating: “San Francisco recently became the first municipality in the nation to join a global trend to ban the use of non-recyclable plastic bags in grocery chains and retail stores. The County of Los Angeles should take the next step and examine an even broader range of options to reduce the grocery sack solid-waste stream in our community.”

While San Francisco has a population of 700,000, what LAC does, which has 10 million constituents, including four million in the City of Los Angeles, could have a more significant impact on the nation.

American Recycler attempted to contact Steve Alexander, the executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR), for his industry’s reaction to the growing strength of the ban movement.

However, in a March 7 letter to Mirkarimi, Alexander expressed his concerns about bio-degradable bags.

“The APR is an international trade association whose member companies acquire, reprocess and sell more than 90% of the postconsumer plastics that are recycled in North America,” he wrote. “We are the businesses that take collected material and turn it into plastic raw material for new products, ranging from carpet and strapping to new plastic bottles and composite alternative decking and railing products.

“San Francisco is considering legislation that would require grocery and retail bags to be manufactured in such a way as to render them biodegradable,” he wrote. “Although we believe that the intent of the legislation is admirable, we believe it will severely impact current recycling efforts and will be detrimental to the plastics recycling industry far beyond the city.”

Alexander says the process utilized to make a material bio-degradable creates a contaminant for most plastic bag recycling applications.

“Should the legislation be enacted,” he wrote, “it would have a general detrimental effect on the recycling of polyethylene. Due to the risk of biodegradable bags being transported into other communities and being supplied to other jurisdictions as a fact of economic life, plastic reclaimers will not be able to accept film material from the city and in regions beyond San Francisco. The altered bags will contaminate the recycling process. Any subsequent material produced using the bio-degradable supply will be deemed inferior and un-saleable. For these reasons, APR and its members oppose the legislation.

Alexander stressed that the APR strongly support efforts to encourage recycling of polyethylene bags.

“Numerous applications exist for the reused material,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, manufacturing bags to a standard of bio-degradability essentially renders the bags unrecyclable. Recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions as the process generates little contribution and the action allows molecules to be reused without the burden of initial manufacture. Biodegradation prevents reuse at best and contributes additional greenhouse gas emissions at worst.”

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