San Francisco Plastic Bag Ban Would Also Charge Customers For Paper Bags (VIDEO)

Will San Francisco Charge Consumers A Fee To Use Shopping Bags?

The question "paper or plastic" is already more or less a moot point in San Francisco -- the 2007 passage of a partial ban on plastic bags in the city saw to that.

Now, if a new proposal by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi becomes law, it will be more like, "use your own bag or pay up."

Mirkarimi, who is leaving the Board of Supervisors to replace Michael Hennessey as San Francisco's next Sheriff, wants to expand the citywide ban on plastic shopping bags from solely covering large grocery and drug stores to include all retail stores and restaurants. The legislation would also place a ten-cent charge on customers for each paper bag they used.

While Mirkarimi has been a long-time advocate of marijuana legalization, it's only now that he may finally make it legal for San Franciscans to pay for dime bags.

All fees collected from the bag charge will go back to the individual business to use as they see fit.

The goal of the measure is to nudge consumers toward bringing their own reusable shopping bags when going to the store. One year after the initial ban, a report by Cygnus Group President Robert Lilienfeld found that, instead of pushing consumers toward reusing canvas bags, the measure may have increased the environmental impact of each shopping trip by forcing customers to double bag with flimsy paper bags. The report went on to note that, "lifecycle studies indicate that paper bags use more energy, produce more waste, and generate more greenhouse gas emissions than do plastic bags."

The businesses will get to keep the fee which is one reason the California Grocers Association and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce spoke in favor of the proposal at a City Hall hearing Monday. But an attorney representing the plastics industry has sued other cities and is threatening to do so now unless there's a state environmental impact review.

Not everyone in San Francisco is in favor of the new restrictions. "Here we are in a recession, and everybody just feels like here is another unnecessary burden," Steve Adams, president of the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro, told the San Francisco Examiner

Four years ago, San Francisco became a global leader in fighting the scourge of plastic bags when it instituted its first-in-the-nation ban. In the years since, over two-dozen other municipalities, ranging from Maui, Hawaii, to Brownsville, Texas, have followed suit.

Two years after the partial San Francisco ban went into effect, plastic bag litter in the city decreased by 18 percent.

China, the world's leading consumer of plastic bags, officially banned them in 2008 and, in the years since, has reduced its bag consumption by half, saving 1.6 million tons of oil in the process.

The first city in the nation to impose a plastic bag tax, Washington, D.C., levied a five-cent charge on the bags in 2010. This measure brought in $2 million to city coffers and, according to an informal study conducted by a local city council member, corresponded with an over 50 percent drop in plastic bag usage in grocery stores.

Seattle voters overturned a city council decision imposing a similar 20-cent fee on plastic bags in 2009, after plastics industry lobbying group the American Chemistry Council spent $1.4 million fighting to overturn the tax. In recent week, the council has recently taken up the cause a second time--now proposing an outright ban.

Plastic shopping bags are typically made from polyethylene, which is produced when long chemical chains in processed natural gas or petroleum are combined together with pressure and heat.

There have been various efforts over the years to assess how much fuel is embedded in plastic bags, due to both the natural gas or petroleum feedstock and the energy of manufacture. The Australian government, in what some have viewed as one of the most comprehensive looks at the issue, concluded in 2002 that a year’s worth of weekly grocery trips, at 10 bags a trip, would result in embedded energy consumption of 210 megajoules--the equivalent of 1.75 gallons (6.6 liters) of gasoline, and emissions of 13 pounds (6.06 kilograms) of CO2.

Correction: The article originally stated that the Washington, D.C. plastic bag tax brought in $3 million during its first year, instead of $2 million, and that it corresponded with an 80 percent reduction in bag usage instead of 50 percent.

Check out this video about eco-friendly shopping bags:

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