San Francisco is a city that enjoys being scratched behind the ears by an adoring world. And the city was certainly purring a little more than a year ago when it banned plastic shopping bags, which triggered adoring headlines around the globe. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the ban's primary author, was fêted in publications from The Economist to People (which gave the photogenic supe a full-page spread). Locally, the ban was a hit: San Francisco was a national trendsetter and a world leader in the green movement.
For locals, this was change we could believe in — after all, it asked us to do nothing. The ban didn't even ask us to think. The infinitesimal decision-making of "Paper or plastic?" was simply replaced by waddling off with armfuls of default paper bags. This, according to the ban's backers, was progress. San Francisco had slain the plastic dragon, doing away with a detested petroleum product that littered our streets, endangered wildlife, and symbolized everything wrong with America's consumerist, throwaway society. That the ban — which applies only to chains or large stores grossing more than $2 million yearly — did next to nothing to alter consumers' throwaway behavior was largely left unsaid. One year later, it still is.
In that time, it has become apparent that many of the rationales used to justify the ban — such as its benefiting the environment and alleviating the city's litter problems — are not playing out in the real world. Plastic bags induce a highly visceral reaction; they have been likened to "synthetic vermin," and Mirkarimi described them to SF Weekly as "unearthly things." But visceral hatred is generally not the best motivation for public policy — especially when scientific studies indicate that policy to be counterproductive.
Mirkarimi claims his office has been inundated by queries from government officials around the United States and even as far off as Europe and Africa, asking how they can kick-start their own ban. And yet San Francisco remains the only large American city to have banned plastic bags. Part of this is because of aggressive — some would say bullying — tactics from the plastics industry. Still, a number of cities and even nations have weighed the scientific evidence and concluded that a San Francisco–style ban simply shunts shoppers to paper bags and is markedly worse for the environment than the status quo.
"Paper bags have a greater environmental impact than plastic bags, and therefore you would not create a policy that banned plastic and forced everyone to use paper only," said Dick Lilly, the manager of the waste prevention program for Seattle Public Utilities. After much analysis, that city spurned the San Francisco model in favor of a fee on all bags, meant to spur shoppers to bring their own — a goal San Francisco officials embrace, but do virtually nothing to promote. Key elements of the S.F. model, in Lilly's estimation, "could be a catastrophic mistake."
The rumble of incoming garbage trucks stirs a Pavlovian response in a squadron of seagulls, who soar toward "The Pit." The football-field–sized trough within an even more massive warehouse at Norcal Waste Systems emits the rancid odor of countless yawning trashcans. More than 1,000 tons of garbage — a vast sea of plastic and paper bags stuffed with rotting garbage as well as twisted and broken household items — are deposited here every day before being shipped to the Altamont Landfill in flatbed trucks. The gulls writhe over the Pit like maggots on meat while a hulking bulldozer deafeningly compacts the reeking morass.
While Mirkarimi described plastic bags as "unearthly," for anyone collecting San Francisco's detritus, they're downright ubiquitous. Like sand, they manage to get everywhere: They blow about the facilities, mix with salvageable materials, and jam machinery. Norcal spokesman Robert Reed, SF Weekly's guide on this malodorous tour, grows indignant when it's suggested that San Francisco's plastic bag ban is based on problematic logic and is anything less than a rip-roaring success. While walking between the towering cubes of compacted cans and papers at the Pier 96 recycling facility, Reed snatches up stray plastic bags and brandishes them the way Senator Joe McCarthy used to wave about lists of names. "You see this? You see this? Shouldn't be here. Shouldn't be here!"
Thankfully, according to John Jurinek, the plant manager at Pier 96, this sort of behavior is warranted 5 to 10 percent less thanks to the city's ban. He estimates that fewer plastic bags are now mixed in with the recyclables and gumming up the sorting machinery. This is a good thing — those machines have to be manually cleared. But it also means that San Francisco's internationally ballyhooed ban has resulted in 18 or 19 bags jamming the conveyer belt instead of 20.
You could make the case that the city's ban has made life marginally better for garbage and recycling workers. Yet the ban triggered international headlines and a swelling of local pride because it was pitched as something far more grandiose: This was bold anti-litter, anti-landfill legislation that, above all, was supposed to benefit the environment. Sadly, none of these claims holds up.
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.