By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
By Pete Kane
By John Birdsall
When Keith Christman begins to rattle off statistics demonstrating plastic bags' superiority over paper ones, his diction slows dramatically like a truck laboring up a mountain pass. The American Chemistry Council's senior director of packaging wants to make sure a journalist taking notes can get down every last damning figure. He's a pro.
In the media frenzy surrounding San Francisco's 2007 ban, a number of U.S. cities bandied about the idea of following suit. And yet, as Christman proudly points out, San Francisco remains the only sizable metropolis to have done so. Seattle's plan to put a 25-cent fee on all grocery bags, he notes, was curtailed until it can be voted on some time this year, thanks to a local petition. While Christman seems content to present this as a spontaneous outpouring of shoppers' righteous indignation, upon prodding from SF Weekly he admits that the petition was undertaken by an American Chemistry Council–bankrolled group. This kind of "lobbying" by the ACC and "local" groups affiliated with it has induced city governments around the country to scrap proactive plans to curtail plastic consumption.
"Lobbying" is also a euphemism for threatening to bleed a municipality by insisting upon costly environmental studies — or lawsuits if they don't comply. Last January, the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling — a group of bag manufacturers with ties to the ACC — sued Oakland, claiming the city could not undertake its proposed ban without first commissioning an Environmental Impact Report. The judge agreed, and the city junked its ban. Some of the same companies later derailed a plastic bag ban in Fairfax with a subsequent legal threat.
Stephen Joseph, the San Francisco lawyer representing Save the Plastic Bag, describes his group as "an informational campaign." Since it was formed by several plastic bag companies in June, it has also found time to hit the city of Manhattan Beach and Los Angeles County with lawsuits over their plastic-reduction ordinances as well as filing legal objections against Santa Clara and San Diego counties and the city of Palo Alto, which are merely considering such measures. Joseph says that a pending San Francisco move to mandate newspapers are delivered in compostable plastic bags may warrant litigation as well. This flurry of legal action, according to the plastics industry, isn't merely about preserving its business model. It's about promoting environmentally friendly behavior such as recycling. "We want to reduce waste," Christman says. When asked if he'd like to reduce Americans' fevered plastic bag consumption, he repeats, with emphasis, "We want to reduce waste."
Christman's statement illustrates the old credo about how big businesses aren't immoral but amoral. Between smarmy, bottom-line–driven salarymen or earnest, well-meaning public servants like Mirkarimi and the folks at the Department of the Environment (whose business cards are "printed with soy-based inks on acid-free, 100 percent postconsumer recycled paper processed chlorine free"), it's no mystery where San Franciscans' sympathies lie. And yet, just like scientific reports concluding plastic bags — "synthetic vermin" — are less of a toll on the environment than paper ones, the notion that self-interested industry representatives could be largely right while progressive politicians and environmentalists are wrong is a counterintuitive — and uncomfortable — notion. In this matter, life is more complicated than spotting who is wearing the black hat or the white hat — or, for that matter, the plastic or paper ones.
In 2002, Ireland mandated a fee of 21 euro cents on plastic shopping bags; within a year, its residents were using 90 percent fewer of them. This was the kind of measure the Department of the Environment and Mirkarimi originally pushed for San Francisco. It wasn't what they got. During a one-year voluntary bag-reduction program adopted by the city's largest grocery stores, the supermarkets' lobbying arm, the California Grocers Association (CGA), turned around and engineered a 2006 state law forbidding municipalities from forcing stores to charge a fee on bags. This galvanized the Board of Supervisors behind Mirkarimi — "I told the mayor, 'No more talking. We're going for the ban,'" he recalls. Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, told the media that San Francisco had no option other than the one it took. But that isn't true.
Thoughtful and innovative methods of skirting the 2006 state law are being developed in the Bay Area — but not in San Francisco. While the state forbids municipalities from imposing a bag fee on stores, leaders in Santa Clara County will vote this year on whether to place a fee directly on consumers, to be collected by stores. If that idea fails to gain support — or doesn't survive the inevitable lawsuit from the plastics industry — the county could simply ban plastic bags and then charge a fee of around 25 cents on paper ones. These methods don't have the San Francisco ban's righteous simplicity, and — in a possible anathema to city liberals — they target mom-and-pop shops as well as chains. But the South Bay plans would actually reduce consumption and help the environment.
While Mirkarimi likes to tout bag fees, he doesn't seem thrilled with the idea of San Franciscans paying them. The fee he proposed in 2005 would have been footed by stores, not by shoppers — a model that has never created significant reductions. He gushed about programs at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's in which shoppers who bring their own bags receive tiny rewards. While this approach makes people feel good about themselves, it doesn't produce real results. Yet when IKEA began charging for bags, consumption dropped 92 percent in the first year alone. Finally, shoppers who go the extra mile to bring reusable bags are missing the big picture — an Australian study noted that driving two kilometers (1.25 miles) roundtrip to the store burns the fuel energy it would take to create 17.5 plastic bags.