Paper or plastic? Pay up

Posted by — April 9, 2009 12:47 am

S.F. grocers would have been charged 17¢ per sack — if the plastic bag industry wasn’t so sneaky…

Saturday, November 20, 2004

In San Francisco, the free grocery bag soon might go the way of the full-service gas station.

City officials are considering charging grocery stores 17 cents apiece for the bags, 90 percent of which are plastic — and are blamed by environmentalists for everything from clogging recycling machines to killing marine life and suffocating infants.

Although the environmentalists are not as concerned about the effect of recyclable paper bags on the environment, the proposal would include them, too, with the idea of reducing waste in general.

In turn, the fee would be passed on to the consumer. Proponents of the surcharge hope this will persuade shoppers to give up the convenience of the disposable sack.

“Yes, it’s going to be a pain the ass, but that’s part of the point,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. “One thing we’ve learned is that sending a financial signal to the marketplace tends to modify behavior much better than voluntary approaches.”

Trade groups representing grocers and the plastics industry predictably aren’t crazy about the idea.

“We think essentially it’s an unnecessary and misguided approach,” said Tim Shestek, spokesman for the American Plastics Council. “This tax is going to hurt those who can least afford it.”

The proposal, set to be considered by the Commission on the Environment on Tuesday, imitates efforts around the world to stem the use of plastic bags — known in China as “white pollution.” Ireland, South Africa, Bangladesh, Australia, Shanghai and Taiwan are just a few of the places where the government either bans plastic bags outright or charges a fee to use them.

Trade groups contend that the results of those efforts are mixed. In Ireland, for example, there is anecdotal evidence of increased shoplifting as people bring in their own bags and higher sales of boxes of plastic bags, which consumers use for everything from pet waste to trash cans.

Murray said the local effort is the first in California after an Assembly bill to levy a statewide 2-cents charge on nonrecyclable disposable bags failed last year.

“We’ve attempted to pursue this at a state level, but the lobbyists for the retail industry are too strong,” he said.

After being considered by the commission, the proposal would move to the mayor’s office or the Board of Supervisors in search of legislative sponsors. A spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom said the mayor is reviewing it. Meanwhile, the proposal has at least one potential champion on the Board of Supervisors, the newly elected Ross Mirkarimi, who helped found the city’s Department of the Environment, which is overseen by the Commission on the Environment.

“We all have a responsibility to promote a healthy and sustainable environment, and by doing that, it means we need to help change people’s patterns, and that even means their shopping patterns,” said Mirkarimi, who will take office in January. “This is a sensible user fee.”

The proposal, which takes the form of a resolution urging the mayor and board to take action, also suggests expanding the surcharge in the future beyond grocers to include drug stores, dry cleaners, newspapers and other retailers.

According to the Department of the Environment, consumers lug home about 50 million bags from San Francisco grocery stores each year. Of those, 90 percent are nonrecyclable plastic.

A report prepared in support of the proposal by Robert Haley, recycling program manager for the environment department, says plastic bags gum up recycling and composting machines at Norcal — San Francisco’s waste management provider — resulting in $1 million in extra costs and lost revenue from the sale of recyclable materials.

The bags account for 2 percent of the city’s total “waste stream,” and picking up and disposing littered bags cost an additional $7.4 million annually, according to the report.

It notes that an estimated 12 million barrels of oil go into the production of plastic bags, while 14 million trees are felled to make their paper counterparts.

Paul Smith, vice president of the California Grocers Association, said the proposal is strongly opposed by the industry group.

“We’re not sure where it came from or … where the 17 cents is going to go. There’s not really a lot of accountability,” Smith said.

According to the proposal, grocers would be able to keep half of the fee and would be expected to spend it on city-approved programs, such as discounted reusable shopping bags.

Shestek, the American Plastics Council spokesman, said some of the costs attributed to plastic bags could be recouped by sending plastic bag waste to companies that can use it as a raw material, such as decking and composite lumber producers.

Heidi Melander, president of the Northern California Recycling Association, a supporter of the proposal, said the fee was a tangible way the public can participate in helping reduce waste.

“We’ve been trained to want bags,” she said. “It’s gotten out of hand — everywhere you go, they force them on you, and they think you’re weird if you don’t take a bag. We might not have control over the blister packaging around the electronic equipment we buy. But we have control over taking that bag.”

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