As if it’s not sufficiently expensive for ordinary people to live in SF

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Paper or plastic? Not anymore in San Francisco.

The city’s Board of Supervisors approved groundbreaking legislation Tuesday to outlaw plastic checkout bags at large supermarkets in about six months and large chain pharmacies in about a year.

The ordinance, sponsored by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, is the first such law in any city in the United States and has been drawing global scrutiny this week.

“I am astounded and surprised by the worldwide attention,” Mirkarimi said. “Hopefully, other cities and other states will follow suit.”

Fifty years ago, plastic bags — starting first with the sandwich bag — were seen in the United States as a more sanitary and environmentally friendly alternative to the deforesting paper bag. Now an estimated 180 million plastic bags are distributed to shoppers each year in San Francisco. Made of filmy plastic, they are hard to recycle and easily blow into trees and waterways, where they are blamed for killing marine life. They also occupy much-needed landfill space.

Two years ago, San Francisco officials considered imposing a 17-cent tax on petroleum-based plastic bags before reaching a deal with the California Grocers Association. The agreement called for large supermarkets to reduce by 10 million the number of bags given to shoppers in 2006. The grocers association said it cut back by 7.6 million, but city officials called that figure unreliable and unverifiable because of poor data supplied by markets.

The dispute led to a renewed interest in outlawing the standard plastic bag, which Mirkarimi said Tuesday was a “relic of the past.” Under the legislation, which passed 10-1 in the first of two votes, large markets and pharmacies will have the option of using compostable bags made of corn starch or bags made of recyclable paper. San Francisco will join a number of countries, such as Ireland, that already have outlawed plastic bags or have levied a tax on them. Final passage of the legislation is expected at the board’s next scheduled meeting, and the mayor is expected to sign it.

The grocers association has warned that the new law will lead to higher prices for San Francisco shoppers.

I don’t know if it makes me feel better or worse to know that I went to school with one of Supervisor Mirkarimi’s relatives.  SF is a small world, and I guess we can all boast of one or two degrees of separation between any one of us and a SF silly person.

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  • Marguerite

    I can relate to silly persons, too. In the early ’90s our church decided they would buckle to the latest fad of the environroMENTALS and ban styro cups for coffee – styro was thought not to break down and I guess people felt pretty righteous. So what do they do now that no one can hold the paper cups w/the hot coffee? They hand everyone two PAPER cups without a word about (gasp) destroying trees.

  • inel

    I heard this news on radio and thought it was brilliant. Good for San Francisco! Plastic bags are only handy when it is pouring with rain and paper bags disintegrate :-(

    Marguerite: there are wrappers for cups that work well and use less paper.

  • Marguerite

    I know there are wrappers. They work at coffee shops, but not where many people are waiting in lines and are fumbling to slip them on, especially the elderly. I’ve also seen the plastic coated paper cups, which are the best answer. My real point was the ridiculous irony of refusing to use styro cups but not batting an eye at using two paper ones.

  • inel

    ridiculous irony of refusing to use styro cups but not batting an eye at using two paper ones.

    But the paper ones can be recycled more easily than styrofoam, and the styrofoam ones do not decompose, and kids bite and pick at styrofoam and make a mess with bits of polystyrene that float in your coffee and cling to your clothes! :-)

  • Bookworm

    It may be that paper is not as easy to recycle as you think, Inel. It’s an incredibly water and chemical intensive process, that ignores the fact that trees are a renewable resource.

    Incidentally, plastic bags are incredibly useful. In my family, they get used multiple times to carry things around (stuff that goes to school or to friends and charities) and to pack things. They eventually end their functional lives either as regular garbage bags (for small garbage cans) and as pooper scoopers. Without them, I’ll simply go to the store and buy sturdier, less biodegradable bags to serve the same purposes.

  • Marguerite

    I pack medical supplies for humanitarian aid and we could not do our work wo/plastic bags – huge ones to line the boxes to keep the stuff clean and dry, small ones to hold items as small as needles,bulky bandages,diapers, etcetra, etcetera, etcetera. There’s a reasonable balance here that I think BW gets at that is missing in the environmental hysteria that passes for intelligent thought – Al Bore, are you listening?

  • Danny Lemieux

    What is so incredibly funny about this is that most paper is made from low-value trees that grow back quite well, thank you very much. This is hardly “old growth” redwoods that we are talking about here. Forests aren’t disappearing in North America, they are expanding.

    Plastic bags, however, are made from waste natural gas…you know, the kind that is usually burned off from oil wells because there is nothing else to do with it. So, plastic bags actually use an environmental resource that is cheap and otherwise allowed to go to waste (or, dare I say, burned into CO2).

    Somebody once observed that the greater and more complex society’s problems, the more obsessive people get about the irrelevant little details. We in Chicago have the same problem. After all, our City Council banned Foie Gras.

  • Marguerite

    Danny – I know the trees you mean – we pass untold acres of them driving up to the state of Washington. I have an ongoing discussion w/my brother-in-law and haven’t been able to find the original info that I once read vis a vis forest expansion in the last two hundred years. Can you recommend any specific site or book/article?