San Francisco’s city ordinance banning traditional plastic bags goes into effect Tuesday. The ordinance, passed in March, starts with large grocery stores and also will include chain pharmacies in six months. Other stores are not under the same mandate.
Although San Francisco is the first city in the U.S. to ban plastic shopping bags (officials estimate that 180 million plastic bags are handed out in the city every year), it joins a growing global backlash that includes Australia, Bangladesh, Ireland, Italy, South Africa and Taiwan. Many other cities are considering a ban or tax on plastic bags as well.
Ireland has seen great success with its PlasTax program, which has reduced plastic bag consumption by 90 percent and raised millions of euros with the 15 euro cents per bag levy instituted in 2002. Critics, however, claim the switch away from plastic bags has led to everything from increased environmental costs to increased shoplifting. The reality of our disposable society means we also need serious behavioral changes to make consumer practices more sustainable.
The plastic bag industry estimates that 100 billion plastic bags are sold every year; environmental groups, meanwhile, say the number is somewhere between 500 billion and one trillion. It takes approximately a millennium for a plastic bag to fully biodegrade.
Under the San Francisco ordinance, paper bags made of at least 40 percent recycled material or biodegradable plastic bags (made from bioplastics) would be allowed. USA Today cites the cost differential — plastic bags cost one cent per bag, paper bags costs five cents, and bioplastics cost 10 cents — as well as the environmental costs — paper sacks generate 70 percent more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags — as prohibitive to making real economic or environmental gains.
The global litter problem of plastic bags is very real. The United Nations Environment Program last year estimated that in the Central Pacific, where the Great Pacific Garbage Patch swirls, there are six pounds of marine litter — most of it plastic — for every pound of plankton.
ReusableBags.com has a large amount of information about plastic bag consumption, costs and alternatives (which they want you to buy), complete with annotations and citations (though frustratingly few links).
San Francisco’s ban is just another step in America’s shift from an oil economy to a green economy. While perfect substitutes do not currently exist, continued legislations and public funding of clean technologies will fill the void with innovation. In the meantime, if you plan on walking your dog in San Francisco, don’t forget to bring some extra bags with you.