Paper or plastic? San Francisco decides

Times Staff Writer

This environmentally friendly city put a green spin Tuesday on the checkout question “Paper or plastic?,” becoming the first in the nation to outlaw non-recyclable plastic bags from use in supermarkets, drugstores and other large retailers.

By a 10-1 vote, the Board of Supervisors required the use of compostable or recyclable bags -- a move officials predicted could soon be imitated by other cities nationwide. One supervisor voted against the ban, saying the issue needed more study.

Each year businesses here dispense an estimated 180 million plastic bags, killing marine life and clogging landfills, said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.


The Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance, written by Mirkarimi and co-sponsored by six other supervisors, gives major supermarket chains with more than $2 million in annual sales six months to make the switch to biodegradable bags. Pharmacies and retailers with at least five locations have one year. Violators face fines of up to $500.

At a news conference before the bill’s passage, Mirkarimi handed out canvas shopping bags that read “SF Environment: Our Home. Our City. Our Planet.” The new law calls for bags that are reusable or made of recyclable paper or plastic that can be composted.

“We can take steps to make our economy a little more soulful in San Francisco,” Mirkarimi told the crowd in front of City Hall. “We can’t sleepwalk into the future. The end of the era of cheap oil is here.”

Advocates say biodegradable bags are stronger than conventional petroleum-based polyurethane plastic bags. In his office before the news conference, Mirkarimi produced a biodegradable bag holding 55 pounds of rocks.

South Africa, Taiwan, Bangladesh and Paris have enacted similar bans. Ireland imposed a plastic-bag tax. Mirkarimi said he has heard from other cities nationwide that are interested in following San Francisco’s lead.

The ordinance, endorsed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, was vigorously opposed by the California Grocers Assn., which said that the ban on plastic bags would frustrate current recycling efforts and cost consumers, who would end up paying for the higher-priced recyclable bags.


“The proposed ordinance will have unintended consequences,” said Kristin Power, the group’s vice president of government relations. “Compostable plastic bags can’t be recycled like regular plastic, so if consumers confuse the two, they’ll render the entire batch unusable.”

A typical plastic bag costs under a penny to produce. Paper bags cost about 5 cents apiece. The newer biodegradable bags, made from materials such as potato starch, each cost 4 to 8 cents, but advocates say the price will drop with increased demand.

At a Whole Foods store in San Francisco on Tuesday, shoppers applauded the board’s vote.

“It’s just too easy not to do,” said Nancy Gutierrez, who browsed in the store’s produce section. For years, she said, she has carried her own canvas bag, adding, “Saving the planet starts with the smallest things.”

Shopper June Rimer agreed. “I’m all for banning our plastic bag habit,” she said. “It’s not like we’re giving up too much.”

Nearby, Gabriella Shultz pointed out fellow shoppers. “Look, every apple, every strawberry, goes into a plastic bag. People get these bags home and they don’t recycle them. They just throw them away.” Such bags are not part of the law.

In San Francisco, the city’s largest 54 supermarkets alone dispense 125 million plastic bags a year, which account for 1,400 tons of landfill waste annually, Mirkarimi said.


Californians use more than 19 billion plastic bags, an average of 552 per resident, said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys). The refuse creates 147,000 tons of waste in state landfills, he said.

Levine sponsored a state law that requires retailers to promote recycling, with visible in-store recycling bins, reusable bags and education campaigns. The law goes into effect this summer. He said the San Francisco ordinance takes his law one step further.

“If San Francisco can ban the plastic bag, more power to them,” he said. “My bill was focused at areas of the state not as liberal as San Francisco and who wouldn’t go that far.”

City officials have been at odds with the grocery industry for years over the issue. Mirkarimi pledged to ban plastic bags when he was elected to the board in 2005. That year, supervisors, led by Mirkarimi, proposed a 17-cent tax on every plastic bag. But the idea stalled over who would foot the bill, and the grocery industry agreed to voluntarily cut back.

Mirkarimi called that eventual reduction of 7.6 million bags a year “not nearly enough.” Currently only 1% of plastic bags are recycled, city officials said.

“The naysayers said there were other more important issues,” Mirkarimi said. “But this city was among the first to ban smoking, aerosol cans and the pull tabs on soda cans.”


In an interview, he said it would be “mean-spirited” for retailers to pass on to consumers increased costs for the biodegradable bags.

“Why did we have to obligate them to do this? Why didn’t they do it voluntarily?” he asked. “It’s like waiting for the auto manufacturers to increase gas efficiency. Why expect anything different from people who also have ties to the oil industry?”