San Francisco Modifies The Age-Old Question: Paper Or Plastic?

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 to ban the use of non-biodegradable plastic bags; supermarkets across the city will retrain their employees to ask: paper or biodegradable plastic?

The Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance, written by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and Co., sponsored by six other supervisors, gives major supermarket chains with more than $2 million in annual sales six months to make the switch to biodegradable bags. Pharmacies and retailers with at least five locations have one year. Violators face fines of up to $500.

Supermarkets have let economics guide their choice between paper and plastic. Paper bags cost four cents, while plastic bags cost a penny. The largest San Francisco supermarket hands out 125 million plastic bags each year.

If you don’t live in San Francisco and want to do your part, don’t throw your bags away. Most stores even offer a negligible discount to consumers who reuse their bags. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER

Paper Instead of Plastic for San Francisco [Canyon News]
(Photo: Zainub)


Edit Your Comment

  1. capsid says:

    Someone told me that the biodegradability of paper bags doesn’t matter if they’re squished into an anaerobic environment deep in the layers of a landfill. Is that true?

  2. tadowguy says:

    I beg to differ about the “most stores offer a negligible discount”. Maybe that’s true in some cities, but certainly not here in Fort Collins, Colorado. I haven’t heard of anyone offering this in Denver either.

  3. GlassBottleLoveAffair says:

    My store pays about 4 cents for plastic and 8 cents for paper. We do give a 5 cent discount per re-used paper bag, which means we actually come out 3 cents ahead. Personally, I wish more places would ban plastic bags. I mean, c’mon, do you really need a huge plastic bag for a candy bar? People are less likely to request a bag for small items when paper is all thats available(found that out when we ran out of plastic bags for a day!).

  4. Maulleigh says:

    Yay San Francisco. One good thing that came out of that bleeding-heart liberal town I call home. Now if they could only vote ten to one to get rid of all the dirty “hippies” that hang out at Haight and Stanyan I might move back.

  5. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    There’s another reason to ban plastic bags.

    Most of them seem to be coming from China.
    Wal-Mart’s do & they are obviously the largest user of plastic bags in the world.

    Paper bags are made in the US or Canada, by people who then spend their money back here in our country.

    Making more money for the entire populace.

  6. Triteon says:

    “Age-old”? Yikes, I’m old enough to remember hearing “Would you like double-bags?”

  7. yahonza says:

    The rationale for this seems very weak. What is the compelling case for quadrupling the cost of bagging groceries?

  8. nequam says:

    The supermarkets where I shop have recycling containers near the entrances so you can return your plastic bags.

    Having been a grocery bagger in my youth, I notice that with the use of plastic bags, baggers have lost the skills of the trade. Often, I get the strangest combination of items in each bag, and may get 3-4 bags containing only 1-2 items each. I think it is because there’s no strategy required in packing a plastic bag, so the baggers simply bag items exactly as they come down the conveyer. Back in the paper-only days (I worked at a grocery store in high school so I’m talking about 1989-90) a bagger had to plan in order to get heavy items at the bottom of the bag, and to fit odd shaped items in a rectangular space. The trick was always to use as few bags as possible but to keep the weight reasonable based on the customer. Okay, maybe I put too much thought into the process, but it was pretty mindless work and it was nice to keep myself alert by making it a challenge. Bottom line, baggers today suck.

  9. FLConsumer says:

    Was the northern California logging industry behind this one?

    Mixed opinions on this one. I personally prefer paper bags because I reuse the bags to wrap books when I ship them on

    BUT, I DO have a problem with governments regulating it. Let the free market decide what’s best. I’d rather have plastic bags for wet/cold items and paper bags for everything else. Nothing like picking up a paper bag and having the bottom fall out from the condensation of the frozen foods

  10. FLConsumer says:

    nequam: I FULLY agree! I’ve never bagged groceries (except in Sainsbury’s where you’re expected to bag your own), but it seems like it’s close to 1 item per bag anymore. I know the plastic bags rip easy, but still, this is nuts.

  11. spryte says:

    The thing is, most people do not bring their plastic bags back even if a store does allow you to or has a recycling box. And, at least in places I’ve lived here in CA (which includes near SF) you cannot put plastic grocery bags in with your other plastic recycling.

    If you’ve ever been to SF or nearby, you know these bags become a damn nuisance. You see them in the gutters and stuck in bushes and sewer grates and such. If people were more responsible it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but they’re not, and I think changing to bags that can be recycled is a great idea.

    @yahonza: Would you prefer they started using styrofoam containers, or maybe something even less biodegradable? The “compelling case” is that these bags are better for the environment, and those of us who care more about that than about saving a few pennies are happy.

  12. AcilletaM says:

    The Dominicks here in N. Ill have really small bags and only put like 2-3 items per bag. It really is ridiculous.

    I also ask for no bag if I’m only getting a couple of items or less.

    I don’t bring my bags back to the store but they do go into my recycling bin. They are picked up the city-hired company here. Which brings up this point: read what your town/city picks up (if they do). I found out I could recycle a bunch of things I was throwing away. I actually need a bigger recycling bin now. And the amount of garbage in my can is a lot less.

  13. AcilletaM says:

    @spryte: Are you sure? My town picks up all plastics 1-6 and bags are usually HDPE 2.

  14. rich815 says:

    “Was the northern California logging industry behind this one?”

    LOL! If you only knew the SF Board of Sups, you’d know how ridiculous that sounds!

  15. jwissick says:

    More SF kookary. I pray for the day the quake flattens SF.

  16. letoofdune says:

    As long as the teenage baggers keep my bleach and chicken in separate bags, I’ll be plenty happy. Nothing like chloro-rific chicken casserole to really end the day.

  17. letoofdune says:

    We should just switch over the European way – bring your own bags, and if you need one, well, feel free to buy one of their heavy duty bags, which you can use again.

    There’s no reason we have to live in a throw-away society; we choose to. I’m not a environmental activist by any stretch of the imagination, but I can spot needless waste when I see it.

  18. sillybgoat says:

    In Australia we have I think 5 years to move away from plastic bags to paper. Some shops now only offer the empty box’s that they have from stocking shelves.

  19. karmaghost says:

    The store I work at has made reusable bag (made out of some sort of cloth; they’re shaped like paper bags but have handles) available to customers at $.99 each. There’s really no incentive to use them, but they’ve been requested by customers a lot. They’ve calculated that if 5% of the customer base switches to these reusable bags, they’ll save $300,000 a year in shipping, packaging, and purchase fees.

  20. BadDolphin says:

    “Now if they could only vote ten to one to get rid of all the dirty ‘hippies'”

    Here’s one vote for you to move the hell out of this country if you hate Americans so badly. “Git.”

  21. CaptainRoin says:

    @nequam: WOOT for ex-baggers. Every time I go to the grocery store I have to show the girlfriend my “bagging skills”. yea i prefer the places where I can bag my own.

  22. Coronagold says:

    …or roll your own.

    I remember when they were all forced to switch to plastic because we were hurting the trees. You don’t remember? Roll another one.

  23. Peeved Guy says:

    @tadowguy —
    In Colorado Springs, King Soopers will give you a $0.25 credit for each bag you bring to the store for them to pack.

    With that said, my first thought was the same as FLConsumer, let the free market decide this rather than have the local government intercede. I shudder to think where they will next stick their collective noses. However, fewer plastic bags = good thing.

  24. phrygian says:

    I’m in North Texas — no discount for bringing your own bags in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area that I’ve seen. Our recycling trucks won’t take plastic shopping bags either.

    I saved the ones I got (before I bought a reusable shopping bag) and use them as trash bags. Eventually, I’ll use up my supply. For now, I just appreciate being able to leave the grocery store with one (admittedly very full) canvas shopping basket vs. the dozen of barely filled dinky plastic bags I used to get.

  25. noneother says:

    haha, a “negligible” discount.

  26. phrygian says:

    I take back my comment of “no discount for bringing your own bags in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area” — I went to Whole Foods over the weekend and save 5 cents for using my own bag. I don’t know how they measure the discount though — I easily saved them from using 4 bags, although I only had my 1 reusable bag with me. Not sure if using 2 reusable bags would have garnered me a 10 cent discount or not.