Fighting our way out of plastic bags 

Plastic bags, ubiquitous plastic bags, unsightly plastic bags — everyone uses them and everyone has an opinion about them. It’s not surprising, then, that these symbols of consumerism have evolved into yet another political issue in The City, betokening the long if oversimplified war between the Board of Supervisors and the business community.

The clash has been oversimplified because, no doubt, some businesses will comply with Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi’s effort to ban stores from including the convenient little carrying bags in their shopping experience. Many merchants, after all, have complied with a similar ban on Styrofoam-style containers.

Mirkarimi’s frustration is understandable. A pact Mayor Gavin Newsom struck two years ago with large grocery stores to cut plastic bags from their transactions by 10 million — 95 tons of waste, by some estimates — failed to be completed by its December 2006 due date. The supervisor’s impulse is to make it mandatory, requiring merchants to convert to "environmentally friendly" bags.

It’s a pity, though, that the board might leap to the bag ban without considering alternatives. This could be less environmentally friendly than it seems. The "paper or plastic?" query, so often mouthed by the baggers at the checkstands, goes back at least two decades.

That courtesy was the merchants’ voluntary response to mounting concerns about our overwhelmingly plasticized society. And it was true: Plastic bags did lots of nasty things. They clogged sewage systems, they piled up in nonbiodegradable and costly ways, and they harmed small animals on land and water. They also, on the plus side, found their way into thrifty household uses.

Environmentalists’ hopes that the problem would go away by the 21st century, obviously, came to naught. Still, the first law of ecology is that you cannot change just one thing. Intricate interrelationships change as a consequence, sometimes less desirably.

The issue prompted the late economist Warren Brookes to investigate what would happen if grocers converted entirely to paper, a prospect that even now excites the anti-plastic lobby. What he found, not too many steps into his research, was a tree-to-pulp-to-paper industry that fouled the environment no less than plastics.

Almost certainly, those revoltingly polluting saw mills have cleaned up measurably since Brookes reported on them. But imagine what would happen if, by political fiat, paper bags supplanted plastic everywhere. Some shoppers did so contemplate, leaving the callow checkstand baggers befuddled when they answered: "Plastic, please. Let’s save a tree."

Meanwhile, the grocers, also understandably, convinced Sacramento to prohibit cities from levying taxes on plastic bags. Mirkarimi’s forced conversion, nonetheless, would exact yet another cost on merchants in The City — a tax in kind just when business is reeling from the health care and sick leave impositions.

If plastic bags are piling up on the sidewalks, at least maybe those foot patrols can enforce the anti-litter laws.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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