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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Can San Francisco Finally Get Plastic Bag Ban Right?

Posted By on Tue, Aug 3, 2010 at 4:30 PM

click to enlarge A moment in the hand, eternity in the land... - JOE ESKENAZI
  • Joe Eskenazi
  • A moment in the hand, eternity in the land...
This afternoon, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi introduces legislation that would finally make the city's plastic bag ban resemble something of a real ban -- and not, say, a ban on smoking marijuana in city parks.

Mirkarimi told SF Weekly that the great successes of the city's existing bag ban adopted in 2007 enables this next step. Your humble narrator sees things a bit differently. If you'll forgive the pun, the existing ban is a thoroughly mixed bag -- it has been questionably effective and its benefits are scientifically dubious. With that said, however, it appears Mirkarimi's new legislation solves many of the problems with the city's bag policy. The city's bag ban may now move from being something that made us feel good about ourselves to something that really and truly encourages more environmentally responsible behavior.

Mirkarimi's new legislation, in brief, would extend the bag ban beyond the huge grocery stores and drug stores currently forced to only offer paper or reusable bags and extend it to pretty much every store in the city. But here's the kicker -- the part that makes this legislation ostensibly work. He'll also impose a five-cent fee on paper bags.

(While today's front page Chronicle article mentioned a 10-cent fee, Mirkarimi has lowered his sights. A higher fee would have required a "nexus" -- that is, a study of how this fee offsets the city's costs incurred related to paper bags. A five-cent fee, meanwhile, just allows the store owners to make back some of the money they'll have to spend for offering costlier paper bags).

While city officials are happy to talk about how many million fewer bags they estimate were distributed in this city as a result of the ban, the fact is, hundreds of millions of bags still exchanged hands here. Only the very largest grocery and drug stores in the city grossing $2 million or more are affected. Especially in poorer parts of the city -- underserved by the large stores affected by the ban -- plastic bags blow through the streets now just as they did in years past. Street Litter Audits commissioned by the city in 2008, incidentally, found more plastic bags than the year before, prior to the ban.

Environmentally, paper bags are not created via transubstantiation. It's a filthy process that is arguably every bit as environmentally damaging as plastics -- and, in landfill, bags take up far more room and decompose just as slowly (if at all). Merely shunting San Francisco shoppers to paper bags instead of plastic ones is a Pyrrhic victory, if it's any kind of victory at all.

Ross Mirkarimi knows this. His end goal has always been for shoppers to bring their own bags -- just as they do in Ireland, continental Europe, and other places that haven't devolved into chaos when the large-scale use of one-time bags was phased out. (Mirkarimi, incidentally, has five canvas bags with him at just about all times).

While bag bans have a questionable effect, bag fees have consistently proven to significantly reduce usage. Unfortunately, however, the fee Mirkarimi is proposing may not be high enough to actually dissuade city shoppers from using paper bags. "I'm not convinced," he says. "We thought 10 cents would be a better number based on early nexus information we had in 2005 and 2006."
Despite its aforementioned shortcomings, Mirkarimi's 2007 San Francisco bag ban certainly garnered its share of attention. It is a debatable point whether Assemblywoman Julia Brownley's statewide bill to ban plastic single-use grocery bags and impose a five-cent fee on paper bags would be poised for passage -- both the grocery stores and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger support it -- if San Francisco hadn't acted first.

It's unclear, however, if Mirkarimi's new ban will jive with the pending statewide ban. He hopes the earlier action and operational dates for his potential legislation will allow the city to hold local businesses to a stricter standard than the state -- but these are the kinds of things lawyers will eventually fight out. "It could cause a collision, but it's a collision worth testing," Mirkarimi says. "Quite frankly, I think we'll prevail."

Let's hope so. There hasn't yet been a plan so well-laid that San Francisco couldn't screw it up. But this one looks like a move worth making -- though its ultimate success is far from in the bag.

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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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