Baggage

The city's politicos made the enviros happy by banning plastic bags, but left us with more pollution and cost

By Mirkarimi's approximation, up to 127 million fewer plastic bags have been distributed in San Francisco. Intuitively, you would expect a correspondingly massive reduction in the number of plastic bags blowing through our city. Yet that hasn't happened. The city's "Streets Litter Audit" is a fantastically detailed document; it even codifies what brand of cigarettes San Franciscans most frequently dispose of improperly (Marlboros, by a mile). Yet regarding plastic shopping bags, the researchers found more of them on the streets in post-ban 2008 than pre-ban '07. What's more, the audit reveals plastic bags comprise only 2.6 percent of the city's litter; even with the jump in '08, they were never a major source of litter — just a highly visible one.

Mirkarimi was unsure how to explain the survey's counterintuitive findings, but speculated it might have something to do with Mayor Gavin Newsom's move to reduce the number of trashcans on city streets. Yet that still doesn't work: While the '08 survey found more plastic bags on the streets than in the prior year, overall litter was down 17 percent. The supervisor also notes that the ban covers only the large grocery stores and pharmacies, which can ostensibly afford to stock costly paper or biodegradable plastic bags — and "that leaves quite a few bags out there." Indeed it does: more than 50 million of them by the supervisor's own reckoning — though this still doesn't explain the litter survey's findings, and pointing out the ban's weaknesses is an odd method of defending it.

In swaths of the city where owners of small stores can only dream of grossing $2 million, you'd never know there's a plastic bag ban. Standing in the doorway of the Bayview's True Hope Church of God and Christ, Herbert Ward nods across the street at Candlestick Park. On game days, he says, plastic bags still blow over the fence and inundate his neighborhood. (In fact, in August one airborne bag spooked a police horse on crowd control duty for the Chargers-49ers game; it ran wild and killed 78-year-old fan Eugene Caldwell.)

Robert Reed, Norcal Waste Systems’ spokesman, pulls plastic bags from a bale of recyclable paper.
Jared Gruenwald
Robert Reed, Norcal Waste Systems’ spokesman, pulls plastic bags from a bale of recyclable paper.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, photographed for Fortune magazine with the “Bag Monster,” was lionized worldwide for authoring San Francisco’s plastic bag ban.
Gregg Segal
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, photographed for Fortune magazine with the “Bag Monster,” was lionized worldwide for authoring San Francisco’s plastic bag ban.

As for ban proponents' fervent claims that plastic bags were clogging our landfills, this triggered bouts of head-shaking and wan smiles from those in the know. While a visit to the Pit reveals seas of plastic bags, by weight and volume they occupy only a minuscule percentage of landfill space. A 2003 survey commissioned by the California Integrated Waste Management Board estimated that plastic grocery bags represent 0.4 percent of the waste stream. Paper bags tallied 1 percent.

The argument that biodegradability is paper bags' saving grace is extremely problematic. Firstly, biodegrading paper represents a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, in a properly run landfill, paper doesn't really biodegrade. In fact, nothing much really does.

Professor William Rathje, currently on leave from Stanford's archaeology department, has excavated 21 landfills in the United States and Canada. Among other things, he's discovered that we greatly overstate the amount of vegetables we eat while heavily understating the amount of alcohol we drink. But he has also pulled "mummified," readable newspapers of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" era out of landfills, along with intact vegetables, hot dogs, and paper sacks sturdy enough to tote them in. Digging through the dirt, Rathje has found that while Americans are using more and more plastic goods, they occupy less and less volume in our landfills due to "lightweighting." Between 1976 and 1992, plastic grocery bags' thickness was reduced by half; today, they are thinner still. While paper products now often incorporate more recycled content, they haven't grown thinner — if anything, it's the opposite. So even if, as the city's Department of the Environment claims, half of San Francisco's paper grocery bags are recycled, that still means millions are going into landfill, where they occupy scads more space than the plastic bags they replaced — and will, for a long time.

"Plastic bags, especially in landfills, take up so much less volume than paper bags," Rathje says. "If you're worried about the amount of space in landfills taken up by plastic bags — don't."


The notion that replacing plastic grocery bags with paper ones benefits the environment depends upon a rather chauvinistic definition of "environment." San Francisco's ban was meant to rid the city of the bags we see — blowing through our streets, gumming up our recycling machines. It isn't concerned with the ramifications of paper bags we don't see: tens of thousands of trees being felled, pulp and paper plants disgorging noxious chemicals into the air and water, and seven times the exhaust-belching trucks required to transport the bulkier paper bags across the nation and deliver them to local stores.

There are no hard numbers at hand regarding how many additional paper bags San Francisco has consumed thanks to the plastic ban — but you can make a reasonable estimation. Mirkarimi's approximation that 127 million fewer plastic bags have been distributed in San Francisco is based on the ban targeting the large outlets that handed out 70 percent of the estimated 181 million plastic bags used yearly prior to the ban. Assuming shoppers use 1.5 plastic bags for every paper one — a standard ratio in studies calculating bags' environmental impacts — then San Franciscans have potentially consumed up to 84 million paper bags in the past year. That sounds like a lot — and it is — but it averages out to each person using one paper bag every three days.

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