San Francisco led the nation when it barred the use of plastic bags at large supermarkets and chain drugstores three years ago. Now it may expand that ban to all retailers, including hardware stores, bookshops, clothing boutiques and department stores.
San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who spearheaded the original law, told The Chronicle he will formally introduce the expansion legislation at today's Board of Supervisors meeting.
If enacted, it could once again put San Francisco at the vanguard of banning the distribution of plastic bags, going further than a statewide ban now under consideration by the California Legislature that has the governor's support.
Under current city law, large supermarkets and chain drugstores, such as Safeway and Walgreens, only may provide three kinds of bags to customers at the checkout stand: recyclable paper bags, compostable plastic bags and reusable bags.
All single-use disposable bags are banned under the old law.
In the new law, Mirkarimi crafted a few exemptions, which include using plastic bags for produce or for garments.
He is contemplating a companion piece to his legislation that would impose a 10-cent charge for paper bags. Currently, retailers don't charge for paper bags in San Francisco, though some, such as Whole Foods and Rainbow Grocery, give customers credit for using their own bags.
Since the San Francisco ban went into effect, an estimated 100 million plastic bags a year have been removed from the waste stream, said Mark Westlund, spokesman for the city's Department of the Environment. That means fewer plastic bags hogging up the landfill, clogging storm drains, littering city streets, jamming recycling machines and hurting marine wildlife, proponents say.
Mirkarimi estimates that broadening the law would remove tens of millions more bags from the environment.
"Plastic bags are a clear example of excess run amok," he said. "People don't necessarily realize the composition of the plastic bag or the consequences of the plastic bag. ...They're omnipresent."
Shari Jackson, director of the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Plastics Council, said Mirkarimi's proposed legislation would have unintended consequences, chiefly increasing the use of paper bags, which have their own environmental problems, and taking away jobs of people who manufacture the plastic bags.
Plastic bags, she added, don't have to be thrown away but can be recycled and used to make decking, fencing and other products.
But Wade Crowfoot, West Coast political director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said that far too few plastic bags get recycled. "It's undeniable that moving to phase out plastic bags makes good environmental sense." New jobs could be created making reusable bags, he added.
Representatives of various neighborhood merchants groups in San Francisco who were contacted Monday did not enthusiastically endorse Mirkarimi's proposal, but they didn't vow to wage battle to defeat it, either.
"It's not going to be the end of the world," said Clement Street Merchants Association President Jesse Fink, who owns the Toy Boat Dessert Cafe, a neighborhood institution where toys also are for sale. "But I do think City Hall can get a little self-righteous, and not always for the right reasons."
Jimmy Shamieh, who heads the Arab American Grocers Association, which represents about 450 small businesses in San Francisco, said he supports "the city's environmental efforts." But, he added, "For the small retailer, the expense of reusable bags is still prohibitive."
Cost of business
Brownie's Hardware on Polk Street opted on its own to stop offering plastic bags when the ban aimed at supermarkets and chain drugstores went into effect, said the owner, Stephen Cornell, a longtime leader in the city's merchant community. "We wanted to do the right thing."
Brownie's used to pack its goods in logo plastic bags, which cost about 8 cents apiece, Cornell said. The paper bags the store now uses cost 40 cents. "It's just another cost of doing business," he said, and one that ultimately gets passed along to the customer.
Mirkarimi's proposal sets a March 1, 2011, effective date and differs from the state legislation that would ban the use of plastic bags at all food and convenience stores, and prohibit all retailers from handing out free paper bags. The state bill would impose a minimum 5-cent charge on paper bags. The California Grocers Association is not opposed.
What concerns Mirkarimi about the state legislation is that it could prevent San Francisco and other municipalities from adopting more stringent policies. He said that shouldn't stop San Francisco from moving forward with his proposal, even if that means waging a legal battle with the state.
The war on plastic
Large supermarkets and chain drugstores in San Francisco cannot provide customers with plastic bags at checkout. Paper bags must contain no old-growth fiber, be 100 percent recyclable and be manufactured with at least 40 percent recycled material.
It would expand the plastic ban to all retail establishments, but with these exceptions:
- Plastic bags that hold bulk items, such as produce, nuts, grains, candy and nails; that contain or wrap frozen food, meat, fish, flowers or potted plants; that carry bakery goods and unwrapped prepared foods.
- Plastic bags used by newspaper carriers and dry cleaners, and for specialty retail merchandise, such as garments.
- Plastic bags sold in packages containing multiple bags intended to hold garbage, pet waste or yard trimmings.
- Reusable carryout bags.