To ban or not to ban? That’s the question a lot of communities are asking themselves these days. Cities and counties from Hawaii to Georgia are considering laws that would ban or institute a fee for single-use of plastic bags. The goals of such legislation include cutting down on litter and keeping plastic out of oceans and other waterways. Do bag bans really work? Mark Westlund, spokesperson for the Environment Department at the City and County of San Francisco, thinks they do. San Francisco was the first community in the U.S. to ban plastic bags. In fact, the city is thinking about expanding the law to crack down even further on the use of disposable bags. America’s greenest city outlawed plastic bags at supermarket checkouts and chain drugstores in 2007 (other stores, such as small drugstores and clothing stores, are exempt). “We estimated grocery stores were using between 100 and 150 million bags every year,” Westlund says of the consumption in the city of San Francisco alone. He continues: “We’ve heard anecdotally that between 30% and 50% of customers are bringing their own bag. What we really wanted to do was increase the use of reusable bags, and we’re seeing that happening.” So far, only one person has called the city to complain about the absence of plastic bags in grocery stores. Although San Franciscans seem happy with the law, it got off to a rocky start. The city’s original plan was to institute a fee on bags. Local grocery stores weren’t thrilled with the idea, Westlund says, so then-mayor Gavin Newsom worked out a compromise. If stores would voluntarily agree to reduce plastic bag consumption by 10 million bags per year, the city would drop the fee proposal. The stores agreed and entered into a memorandum of understanding with the city. In the following year, two things happened. Only one grocery store actually followed through and reported its bag usage. The remainder failed to comply with the guidelines set out in the memorandum of understanding. Second, the grocery store lobby had a rider added to a bill in the California State Assembly — a recycling bill nonetheless — making it illegal for any city to charge for plastic bags. “After that, there was the political will to make something happen,” Westlund says. The bill in the statehouse didn’t prohibit cities from banning plastic bags all together. So, that’s exactly what San Francisco did. Retailers have since warmed to the idea. “I think they realized that they were actually saving money,” Westlund says. In fact, the grocery store association supported a 2010 bill that would ban plastic bags throughout California and institute a 5¢ fee for paper bags. The bill gained quite a bit of support, but ultimately did not pass. A number of California cities have followed San Francisco’s example. Bay Area cities San Jose and Palo Alto have passed laws banning plastic bags and charging for paper bags in large stores. In Southern California, unincorporated Los Angeles County and Long Beach both have bag bans that recently went into effect. What’s next for the bag-ban pioneers? The city is considering banning plastic bags in all retail establishments and instituting a small fee for paper bags. Stores would get to keep the fees charged for paper bags, which would help them offset their costs. “This is what we would have done from the beginning if there was the political will for it,” Westlund says. It’s also the route they recommend to other cities that are struggling with the issue right now.
San Francisco Still a Believer in Bag Ban
The first U.S. city to ban plastic bags continues to be a model of waste management, especially when dealing with plastics.