The victorious hoopla that followed the passage of a 2007 ordinance designed to reduce plastic bag litter in San Francisco may have been a bit premature. A year and a half after the law was passed, environmentalists admit the measure has fallen short of its promises.
In fact, what was hailed as a groundbreaking plastic bag ban in supermarkets and large drugstores never actually banned the bags at all. The fine print of the initiative, written largely by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, permits "reusable checkout bags," a definition that includes plastic ones.
Some Walgreens stores and Sunset Supermarkets' two locations have opted for the "reusable" route. They still hand out ugly, brittle, perfectly disposable-looking bags, but which fit the law's definition of reusable — two handles and at least 2.25 thousandths of an inch thick. Ironically, these bags are approximately four to five times thicker, beefier, and carbon-costlier than the flimsy bags they replaced.
"I'd be very surprised if any of these bags were being reused, because the stores are just handing them out as a replacement for the old checkout bags," says environment department spokesman Mark Westlund, who helped polish the legislation before the Board of Supes voted on it.
So why in the world does the law pointedly offer such a generous loophole for the stingier retailers in town to step through? Mirkarimi blames District 2 Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier for forcing in that part as an amendment to his original draft. (Alioto-Pier couldn't be reached for comment before press time.) "My intent," he says, "was to have consistency with a ban all the way across, or to require that the bags be compostable."
Thanks to Alioto-Pier's amendment, Walgreens and Sunset Supermarket are technically within the bounds of city law as they dispense their thick plastic bags, but Mirkarimi intends to see the things eliminated regardless. "I don't like the bags they're using," he says. "They need to deplete that supply fast and switch to paper. My feelings are that they're exploiting the intent of the law."
Westlund and the Department of the Environment are working to persuade the stubborn stores to shift away from their "reusable" plastic bags. If that fails, Mirkarimi says the supes will go back to the drawing board: "I intend to amend the law until it can't be abused."