No more ‘paper or plastic?’ 

San Francisco continued to ride the "green wave" Tuesday by becoming the first city in the nation to ban plastic checkout bags from large grocery and pharmacy chains.

Opposed by grocers, legislation banning the plastic bags was widely supported by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, blaming the petroleum-based bags for littering city streets, harming wildlife, gumming up recycling machines and eating up fossil fuels.

The City’s estimated 54 large grocery chains will have to switch to recyclable paper, compostable plastic bags or durable reusable bags within about six months and large pharmacy chains, such as Walgreens and Rite-Aid, within a year.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi drafted the legislation after he and other city officials accused the large grocery store chains of failing to live up to an agreement to reduce the use of the bags by 10 million last year. The agreement was struck with the stipulation that The City would not pursue a 17-cent tax per plastic bag.

The California Grocers Association maintain the agreement was successful in cutting the usage of plastic bags by 7.6 million in 2006, but city officials claim that number is unreliable.

The ban would help move The City closer to its goal of diverting 75 percent of all waste produced from its landfills by 2010, said Jared Blumenfeld, head of the Environment Department.

"After 10 years of plastic bag recycling in The City, we have a 1 percent recycling rate. So it’s a 99 percent failure of the bags," Blumenfeld said.

It is estimated that San Francisco’s 54 large grocery stores account for 100 million to 150 million plastic checkout bags a year, according to city officials, and that 430,000 gallons of oil is used in the production of 100 million plastic bags.

"We still don’t think that it’s the most effective way of dealing with the environmental issue," California Grocers Association spokesman Dave Heylen said.

Instead, the grocers association advocates continuing efforts to recycle and reuse plastic bags. Heylen also said the plastic bags are "the most economical from a retail standpoint," costing a "couple of pennies" each while the compostable plastic bags would cost anywhere between 6 and 10 cents each.

Supervisor Ed Jew, the only naysayer in the 10-1 vote, agreed the ban would hamper recycling efforts.

"We still have about 95,000 small businesses in San Francisco that will continue to use plastic bags, as well as the city and county of San Francisco," Jew said.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to give final approval to the legislation at its next meeting on April 10.

Shoppers critical of prohibition

On a windy day when loose plastic, paper and garments were noticeable, many shoppers said they understood the desired environmental effect in the ban but that the plastic bags provided a convenience otherwise unfulfilled by the cumbersome and geometric paper bags.

"When you’re running around with plastic bags, you can put a ton on your hand. You can’t do that with paper," said Mark Quessey, a design student popping out of the Walgreens at Broadway and Polk streets.

"It’s politicians trying to make themselves sound important; it’s just a gimmick," Quessey said.

The ban only affects The City’s largest chain supermarkets — 54 in all — and pharmacy chains such as Walgreens, leaving plastic bags with smaller businesses, such as corner grocers.

Others lamented the loss of plastic bags for around-the-house duties such as garbage or, ahem, dog duty.

Matt Campbell, who drives to the Safeway in the Marina from the Presidio, said he used the bags around his house for just such reasons.

When asked about compostable bags, Campbell along with shoppers, questioned what they were made of and how similar they were to plastic.

H.O. Salimi said that while his wife would miss the plastic bags for household uses, it was a good idea to cut down on the amount of plastic that is out there.

Shopping at the Whole Foods at Franklin and California streets three times a week, he said he noticed the omnipresence of plastic bags when they would be tucked into each other for support.

Devian McEvoy, walking up the hill from the Marina Safeway with two plastic bags in hand, called the ban "pointless" because paper pollutes, too, and the board was "just asking for perfection."— David Smith

jsabatini@examiner.com

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