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The city's politicos made the enviros happy by banning plastic bags, but left us with more pollution and cost

Wednesday, Jan 7 2009

San Francisco is a city that enjoys being scratched behind the ears by an adoring world. And the city was certainly purring a little more than a year ago when it banned plastic shopping bags, which triggered adoring headlines around the globe. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the ban's primary author, was fêted in publications from The Economist to People (which gave the photogenic supe a full-page spread). Locally, the ban was a hit: San Francisco was a national trendsetter and a world leader in the green movement.

For locals, this was change we could believe in — after all, it asked us to do nothing. The ban didn't even ask us to think. The infinitesimal decision-making of "Paper or plastic?" was simply replaced by waddling off with armfuls of default paper bags. This, according to the ban's backers, was progress. San Francisco had slain the plastic dragon, doing away with a detested petroleum product that littered our streets, endangered wildlife, and symbolized everything wrong with America's consumerist, throwaway society. That the ban — which applies only to chains or large stores grossing more than $2 million yearly — did next to nothing to alter consumers' throwaway behavior was largely left unsaid. One year later, it still is.

In that time, it has become apparent that many of the rationales used to justify the ban — such as its benefiting the environment and alleviating the city's litter problems — are not playing out in the real world. Plastic bags induce a highly visceral reaction; they have been likened to "synthetic vermin," and Mirkarimi described them to SF Weekly as "unearthly things." But visceral hatred is generally not the best motivation for public policy — especially when scientific studies indicate that policy to be counterproductive.

Mirkarimi claims his office has been inundated by queries from government officials around the United States and even as far off as Europe and Africa, asking how they can kick-start their own ban. And yet San Francisco remains the only large American city to have banned plastic bags. Part of this is because of aggressive — some would say bullying — tactics from the plastics industry. Still, a number of cities and even nations have weighed the scientific evidence and concluded that a San Francisco–style ban simply shunts shoppers to paper bags and is markedly worse for the environment than the status quo.

"Paper bags have a greater environmental impact than plastic bags, and therefore you would not create a policy that banned plastic and forced everyone to use paper only," said Dick Lilly, the manager of the waste prevention program for Seattle Public Utilities. After much analysis, that city spurned the San Francisco model in favor of a fee on all bags, meant to spur shoppers to bring their own — a goal San Francisco officials embrace, but do virtually nothing to promote. Key elements of the S.F. model, in Lilly's estimation, "could be a catastrophic mistake."

The rumble of incoming garbage trucks stirs a Pavlovian response in a squadron of seagulls, who soar toward "The Pit." The football-field–sized trough within an even more massive warehouse at Norcal Waste Systems emits the rancid odor of countless yawning trashcans. More than 1,000 tons of garbage — a vast sea of plastic and paper bags stuffed with rotting garbage as well as twisted and broken household items — are deposited here every day before being shipped to the Altamont Landfill in flatbed trucks. The gulls writhe over the Pit like maggots on meat while a hulking bulldozer deafeningly compacts the reeking morass.

While Mirkarimi described plastic bags as "unearthly," for anyone collecting San Francisco's detritus, they're downright ubiquitous. Like sand, they manage to get everywhere: They blow about the facilities, mix with salvageable materials, and jam machinery. Norcal spokesman Robert Reed, SF Weekly's guide on this malodorous tour, grows indignant when it's suggested that San Francisco's plastic bag ban is based on problematic logic and is anything less than a rip-roaring success. While walking between the towering cubes of compacted cans and papers at the Pier 96 recycling facility, Reed snatches up stray plastic bags and brandishes them the way Senator Joe McCarthy used to wave about lists of names. "You see this? You see this? Shouldn't be here. Shouldn't be here!"

Thankfully, according to John Jurinek, the plant manager at Pier 96, this sort of behavior is warranted 5 to 10 percent less thanks to the city's ban. He estimates that fewer plastic bags are now mixed in with the recyclables and gumming up the sorting machinery. This is a good thing — those machines have to be manually cleared. But it also means that San Francisco's internationally ballyhooed ban has resulted in 18 or 19 bags jamming the conveyer belt instead of 20.

You could make the case that the city's ban has made life marginally better for garbage and recycling workers. Yet the ban triggered international headlines and a swelling of local pride because it was pitched as something far more grandiose: This was bold anti-litter, anti-landfill legislation that, above all, was supposed to benefit the environment. Sadly, none of these claims holds up.

By Mirkarimi's approximation, up to 127 million fewer plastic bags have been distributed in San Francisco. Intuitively, you would expect a correspondingly massive reduction in the number of plastic bags blowing through our city. Yet that hasn't happened. The city's "Streets Litter Audit" is a fantastically detailed document; it even codifies what brand of cigarettes San Franciscans most frequently dispose of improperly (Marlboros, by a mile). Yet regarding plastic shopping bags, the researchers found more of them on the streets in post-ban 2008 than pre-ban '07. What's more, the audit reveals plastic bags comprise only 2.6 percent of the city's litter; even with the jump in '08, they were never a major source of litter — just a highly visible one.

Mirkarimi was unsure how to explain the survey's counterintuitive findings, but speculated it might have something to do with Mayor Gavin Newsom's move to reduce the number of trashcans on city streets. Yet that still doesn't work: While the '08 survey found more plastic bags on the streets than in the prior year, overall litter was down 17 percent. The supervisor also notes that the ban covers only the large grocery stores and pharmacies, which can ostensibly afford to stock costly paper or biodegradable plastic bags — and "that leaves quite a few bags out there." Indeed it does: more than 50 million of them by the supervisor's own reckoning — though this still doesn't explain the litter survey's findings, and pointing out the ban's weaknesses is an odd method of defending it.

In swaths of the city where owners of small stores can only dream of grossing $2 million, you'd never know there's a plastic bag ban. Standing in the doorway of the Bayview's True Hope Church of God and Christ, Herbert Ward nods across the street at Candlestick Park. On game days, he says, plastic bags still blow over the fence and inundate his neighborhood. (In fact, in August one airborne bag spooked a police horse on crowd control duty for the Chargers-49ers game; it ran wild and killed 78-year-old fan Eugene Caldwell.)

As for ban proponents' fervent claims that plastic bags were clogging our landfills, this triggered bouts of head-shaking and wan smiles from those in the know. While a visit to the Pit reveals seas of plastic bags, by weight and volume they occupy only a minuscule percentage of landfill space. A 2003 survey commissioned by the California Integrated Waste Management Board estimated that plastic grocery bags represent 0.4 percent of the waste stream. Paper bags tallied 1 percent.

The argument that biodegradability is paper bags' saving grace is extremely problematic. Firstly, biodegrading paper represents a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, in a properly run landfill, paper doesn't really biodegrade. In fact, nothing much really does.

Professor William Rathje, currently on leave from Stanford's archaeology department, has excavated 21 landfills in the United States and Canada. Among other things, he's discovered that we greatly overstate the amount of vegetables we eat while heavily understating the amount of alcohol we drink. But he has also pulled "mummified," readable newspapers of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" era out of landfills, along with intact vegetables, hot dogs, and paper sacks sturdy enough to tote them in. Digging through the dirt, Rathje has found that while Americans are using more and more plastic goods, they occupy less and less volume in our landfills due to "lightweighting." Between 1976 and 1992, plastic grocery bags' thickness was reduced by half; today, they are thinner still. While paper products now often incorporate more recycled content, they haven't grown thinner — if anything, it's the opposite. So even if, as the city's Department of the Environment claims, half of San Francisco's paper grocery bags are recycled, that still means millions are going into landfill, where they occupy scads more space than the plastic bags they replaced — and will, for a long time.

"Plastic bags, especially in landfills, take up so much less volume than paper bags," Rathje says. "If you're worried about the amount of space in landfills taken up by plastic bags — don't."

The notion that replacing plastic grocery bags with paper ones benefits the environment depends upon a rather chauvinistic definition of "environment." San Francisco's ban was meant to rid the city of the bags we see — blowing through our streets, gumming up our recycling machines. It isn't concerned with the ramifications of paper bags we don't see: tens of thousands of trees being felled, pulp and paper plants disgorging noxious chemicals into the air and water, and seven times the exhaust-belching trucks required to transport the bulkier paper bags across the nation and deliver them to local stores.

There are no hard numbers at hand regarding how many additional paper bags San Francisco has consumed thanks to the plastic ban — but you can make a reasonable estimation. Mirkarimi's approximation that 127 million fewer plastic bags have been distributed in San Francisco is based on the ban targeting the large outlets that handed out 70 percent of the estimated 181 million plastic bags used yearly prior to the ban. Assuming shoppers use 1.5 plastic bags for every paper one — a standard ratio in studies calculating bags' environmental impacts — then San Franciscans have potentially consumed up to 84 million paper bags in the past year. That sounds like a lot — and it is — but it averages out to each person using one paper bag every three days.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund's "paper calculator" — and factoring in the city's requirement that bags be composed of at least 40 percent recycled material — the ecological consequences are staggering. That many paper bags weigh about 5,250 tons, which results in the felling of 72,000 trees, sulfur dioxide emissions of 91,200 pounds, the release of 21.5 million pounds of greenhouse gases, and the generation of 40 million gallons of wastewater.

In the past two decades, a number of "Life-Cycle Analyses" (LCAs) have measured the "cradle to grave" environmental impact of plastic and paper shopping bags. SF Weekly was unable to track down any that rated paper as being more environmentally beneficial overall. Again and again, paper bags were found to require more energy to create and transport, emit more greenhouse gases, generate more water and air pollution, consume far more fresh water, produce much more solid waste, and produce markedly more eutrophication of water bodies (a condition in which an excess of nutrients, often nitrogen, leads to choking algae infestations).

Several of these LCAs were commissioned by the plastics industry — yet Charles Lardner, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, said the paper industry does not dispute the studies' findings. And a number of the studies were not connected to the plastics industry. A 2004 analysis by the French retail giant Carrefour found the most environmentally friendly bag to be a heavy-duty reusable plastic sack; paper bags were found to be the worst of all. Regarding so-called "biodegradable plastic," while LCAs differ, several found it to require far more energy to produce and distribute than regular plastic. What's more, it requires the cultivation of vast amounts of corn or potatoes, which are farmed unsustainably using powerful chemicals. The West German, Australian, and Scottish governments weighed the scientific evidence to deduce that a simple elimination of plastic bags in favor of paper ones would be an ecological step backward. This conclusion was duplicated last year in Seattle.

These findings do not much impress Jack Macy and Robert Haley of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, two of the longtime movers and shakers behind the city's quest to quit plastic. Haley notes that "you can always get an LCA to support your view," and brushes it off as "bogus science" irreparably tainted by its connection to industry. The two then touted a 2000 study in Sweden that showed paper bags to be more environmentally friendly than plastic ones. This LCA, performed by the firm CIT Ekologik, is something of a security blanket for municipalities hoping to justify a plastic bag ban; officials in Manhattan Beach and Massachusetts have cited it as well. It warrants mentioning, however, that this was not a study of small grocery bags but hulking, 55-pound animal feed sacks. What's more, it too was commissioned by industry: a consortium of European paper bag companies.

When it comes to "bogus science," a helping of it found its way into San Francisco's anti-plastic-bag ordinance. The text refers to the "12 million barrels of oil" required to produce the 100 billion plastic bags Americans use each year. While these figures proliferate on the Internet, neither is verifiable. Even the American Chemistry Council is unsure exactly how many bags Americans use each year, and the notion of oil barrels is curious considering the vast majority of plastic bags produced in this country are derived from natural gas (the industry claims 85 percent of plastic bags used in America are domestically made).

The man claiming credit for this ubiquitous statistic is Vince Cobb, a 42-year-old Chicagoan who sells reusable bags on the Internet. Cobb told SF Weekly he did a back-of-the-envelope calculation cribbing an estimate on American plastic bag use from an old Wall Street Journal article and plugging in the number of British Thermal Units required to create one plastic bag according to a 20-year-old Society of Plastics Industry text. He then searched the Internet to determine the number of BTUs in a barrel of oil.

San Francisco's ordinance also trumpets the much-recited figure that plastic bags are responsible for the yearly deaths of 100,000 marine animals and millions of birds. These figures have utterly no basis in fact, and their worldwide proliferation is the result of what, for lack of a better term, could be described as an epic Internet screw-up. The figure is derived from a 1987 Canadian study claiming that, between 1981 and 1984, more than 100,000 marine birds and mammals died in discarded fishing nets. And yet, when the above passage was reprinted in a 2002 Australian study of plastic bags, the words "fishing nets" were, inexplicably, replaced by "plastic bags." From there, the Internet served as a misinformation superhighway, and the legend became fact. Combined with heartbreaking photographs of bags choking sea turtles and suffocating shorebirds, the statistic gave strength to growing movements to ban the bag — as evidenced by its inclusion in San Francisco's ordinance.

"It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags; the evidence shows just the opposite," Greenpeace marine biologist David Santillo told the Times of London. "With larger mammals, it's fishing gear that's the big problem. On a global basis, plastic bags aren't an issue."

When Keith Christman begins to rattle off statistics demonstrating plastic bags' superiority over paper ones, his diction slows dramatically like a truck laboring up a mountain pass. The American Chemistry Council's senior director of packaging wants to make sure a journalist taking notes can get down every last damning figure. He's a pro.

In the media frenzy surrounding San Francisco's 2007 ban, a number of U.S. cities bandied about the idea of following suit. And yet, as Christman proudly points out, San Francisco remains the only sizable metropolis to have done so. Seattle's plan to put a 25-cent fee on all grocery bags, he notes, was curtailed until it can be voted on some time this year, thanks to a local petition. While Christman seems content to present this as a spontaneous outpouring of shoppers' righteous indignation, upon prodding from SF Weekly he admits that the petition was undertaken by an American Chemistry Council–bankrolled group. This kind of "lobbying" by the ACC and "local" groups affiliated with it has induced city governments around the country to scrap proactive plans to curtail plastic consumption.

"Lobbying" is also a euphemism for threatening to bleed a municipality by insisting upon costly environmental studies — or lawsuits if they don't comply. Last January, the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling — a group of bag manufacturers with ties to the ACC — sued Oakland, claiming the city could not undertake its proposed ban without first commissioning an Environmental Impact Report. The judge agreed, and the city junked its ban. Some of the same companies later derailed a plastic bag ban in Fairfax with a subsequent legal threat.

Stephen Joseph, the San Francisco lawyer representing Save the Plastic Bag, describes his group as "an informational campaign." Since it was formed by several plastic bag companies in June, it has also found time to hit the city of Manhattan Beach and Los Angeles County with lawsuits over their plastic-reduction ordinances as well as filing legal objections against Santa Clara and San Diego counties and the city of Palo Alto, which are merely considering such measures. Joseph says that a pending San Francisco move to mandate newspapers are delivered in compostable plastic bags may warrant litigation as well. This flurry of legal action, according to the plastics industry, isn't merely about preserving its business model. It's about promoting environmentally friendly behavior such as recycling. "We want to reduce waste," Christman says. When asked if he'd like to reduce Americans' fevered plastic bag consumption, he repeats, with emphasis, "We want to reduce waste."

Christman's statement illustrates the old credo about how big businesses aren't immoral but amoral. Between smarmy, bottom-line–driven salarymen or earnest, well-meaning public servants like Mirkarimi and the folks at the Department of the Environment (whose business cards are "printed with soy-based inks on acid-free, 100 percent postconsumer recycled paper processed chlorine free"), it's no mystery where San Franciscans' sympathies lie. And yet, just like scientific reports concluding plastic bags — "synthetic vermin" — are less of a toll on the environment than paper ones, the notion that self-interested industry representatives could be largely right while progressive politicians and environmentalists are wrong is a counterintuitive — and uncomfortable — notion. In this matter, life is more complicated than spotting who is wearing the black hat or the white hat — or, for that matter, the plastic or paper ones.

In 2002, Ireland mandated a fee of 21 euro cents on plastic shopping bags; within a year, its residents were using 90 percent fewer of them. This was the kind of measure the Department of the Environment and Mirkarimi originally pushed for San Francisco. It wasn't what they got. During a one-year voluntary bag-reduction program adopted by the city's largest grocery stores, the supermarkets' lobbying arm, the California Grocers Association (CGA), turned around and engineered a 2006 state law forbidding municipalities from forcing stores to charge a fee on bags. This galvanized the Board of Supervisors behind Mirkarimi — "I told the mayor, 'No more talking. We're going for the ban,'" he recalls. Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, told the media that San Francisco had no option other than the one it took. But that isn't true.

Thoughtful and innovative methods of skirting the 2006 state law are being developed in the Bay Area — but not in San Francisco. While the state forbids municipalities from imposing a bag fee on stores, leaders in Santa Clara County will vote this year on whether to place a fee directly on consumers, to be collected by stores. If that idea fails to gain support — or doesn't survive the inevitable lawsuit from the plastics industry — the county could simply ban plastic bags and then charge a fee of around 25 cents on paper ones. These methods don't have the San Francisco ban's righteous simplicity, and — in a possible anathema to city liberals — they target mom-and-pop shops as well as chains. But the South Bay plans would actually reduce consumption and help the environment.

While Mirkarimi likes to tout bag fees, he doesn't seem thrilled with the idea of San Franciscans paying them. The fee he proposed in 2005 would have been footed by stores, not by shoppers — a model that has never created significant reductions. He gushed about programs at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's in which shoppers who bring their own bags receive tiny rewards. While this approach makes people feel good about themselves, it doesn't produce real results. Yet when IKEA began charging for bags, consumption dropped 92 percent in the first year alone. Finally, shoppers who go the extra mile to bring reusable bags are missing the big picture — an Australian study noted that driving two kilometers (1.25 miles) roundtrip to the store burns the fuel energy it would take to create 17.5 plastic bags.

In the coming months, the state may step in and undertake the heavy lifting San Francisco has failed to do. The City of Los Angeles recently passed a measure proposing a ban of plastic bags in 2010 if the state doesn't put a 25-cent fee on them. A state bill that would have done just that died in the Assembly last year, a victim of the collapsing economy. That bill was supported by the CGA, which detests plastic bans, since they force stores to hand out paper and compostable plastic bags costing far more than conventional plastic. Yet even with backing from the grocers' lobby and the state's largest city, Mark Murray, the executive director of the environmental group Californians Against Waste, foresees "a very uphill battle" for any statewide bag fees in the current economy.

Ditto that on the local front. While likening San Francisco's bag ban to "a half-measure" and "one-winged airplane" without further provisions to actually cut consumption, Mirkarimi said, "the tsunami of our budget crisis" will keep San Francisco flying its one-winged plane for the time being. The honest, aggressive approaches to quell plastic bags in an ecologically responsible manner will be ceded to Santa Clara County: a region, ironically enough, many San Franciscans regard as superficial, boring, and — dare we say it — plastic.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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