In a trailblazing environmental move that recognizes one of the stubborn shortfalls of traditional recycling, city leaders have approved a ban on nonbiodegradable plastic bags at supermarkets and large pharmacy checkout counters.
San Francisco currently crinkles its way through 181 million plastic bags every year. Only 1 percent of those bags get a second life in products like deck furniture and railroad ties, even after a decade of trying to boost recycling. Nationally, the picture is similar: Less than 1 percent of 100 billion plastic bags tossed each year get recycled.
By voting Tuesday to ban traditional plastic bags, made from petroleum, the city hopes to spur retailers to provide an alternative type of plastic bag – one made from starches. Customers can discard this kind of bag in their compost collection bins, which are widely used here.
San Francisco will be the first US city to prohibit petroleum-based bags, pending expected final approval. But it's in good company internationally, joining countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Environmentalists hope such bans will move into the American mainstream.
"This is groundbreaking legislation that could have a domino effect across California and eventually the country," says John Rizzo, who serves on the executive board of the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay chapter. "We are definitely behind the curve [internationally] on this."
South Africa, Rwanda, Zanzibar, and the French island of Corsica have banned throwaway plastic bags, as have a handful of Alaskan towns. Bangladesh and the Indian state of Maharashtra, which includes the megalopolis of Mumbai, have also passed prohibitions, saying the bags clogged drains during floods. Phaseouts are planned in Paris, south Australia, and parts of western Canada.
Other countries and some companies have slapped surcharges on plastic bags. A "plastax" of 15 cents per bag in Ireland cut usage by more than 90 percent. This month, furniture retailer IKEA expanded a five-cents-per-bag fee into its US stores. The company credits the policy with curbing plastic bag use by 95 percent over 10 months in its British stores.
Box-stores like IKEA, restaurants, and mom-and-pop marts won't be affected by the San Francisco ordinance – only the large grocers and pharmacies, which are estimated to hand out more than 90 percent of the city's bags. Those affected by the law, expected to be implemented seven months from now, are still weighing their options, says Dave Heylen, a spokesman for the California Grocers Association.
"If you look at the costs [of compostable bags] and [if] they are as high as what we believe they are going to be, I think it will be a safe assumption to say that retailers will be more inclined to go back to a paper bag, which [costs] considerably less," says Mr. Heylen.
He says initial cost estimates for compostable bags run five to 10 cents per bag, considerably more than traditional plastic bags, which cost a couple of cents each. The price of corn, the raw material for compostable bags, has risen with rising demand for ethanol.
Price concerns are echoed by the lone dissenter in Tuesday's 10-1 vote, Supervisor Ed Jew. "It is a regressive tax," he says. "This will probably expand to small businesses, and that's really going to be an economic hardship that will be passed on to consumers."
Supporters, including chief sponsor Ross Mirkarimi, say that the ordinance focuses on large businesses with the expectation that, as bulk purchasers, they will drive down costs for those bags.
Beyond cost considerations, critics decry the turn away from current recycling efforts. Heylen says the biodegradable bags, if inadvertently placed in store-front recycling bins mandated by the state for petroleum-based bags, will gunk up the recycled material.
But Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, says there isn't anything to gunk up.
"After 10 years, the recycling rate for plastic bags in San Francisco – which is pointed to as a model nationwide – is 1 percent, he says. "So 99 percent failure."
By switching to the compostable bags, Mr. Blumenfeld says the city will be conserving 430,000 gallons of oil used to make traditional bags – the equivalent of keeping 140,000 cars off the street for a day.
There's harsh economics behind bag recycling: It costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32, says Blumenfeld. Other refuse, like aluminum cans, are actually profitable.
With compostable bags, Blumenfeld says, the city should be able to reach its goal of reaching a 75 percent recycling rate – far above the national average of 32 percent.
The scarcity of space for landfills in San Francisco has forced it to be a recycling leader. Other densely populated cities face similar problems, though the nation still has significant landfill capacity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
With more landfill and less composting, other US locales may not be quick to follow San Francisco's lead. But even if the biodegradable bags aren't fed into a composting system, they have the advantage of dissolving within a matter of months, rather than centuries.
In the meantime, consumers can always bring their own reusable bags – something roughly 1 in 7 customers already does, reckons Duncan Foley, a bagger at a downtown Safeway supermarket.
Several shoppers there expressed support for the ordinance. "If they can find something biodegradable that's easy to carry, like plastic [is], I'll use it," says Miguel Cornegio, a San Francisco resident. "It's OK if it costs a little more."