San Francisco’s plastic bag ban expands in October

Haley Zaremba
San Francisco Public Press

By Haley Zaremba
Public Press
— Sep 19 2012 - 3:01pm

Appeal vowed over city move to expand in October from grocery, drug stores to other retailers

San Francisco’s hard-fought ban on plastic bags is scheduled to expand in October from grocery and drug stores to other retailers, bookstores and clothing stores. By October 2013 even restaurants will have to rethink their packaging options. Take-out may never be the same.

Yet despite the political momentum behind the battle against litter and landfill bulk, not all San Franciscans are taking this news well. A group — actually, mostly just a lawyer with a distaste for what he calls environmentalist “know-nothings,” and who has friends in the plastics industry — struck back, and tried to stop the measure in court.

But on Sept. 12, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teri Jackson ruled that the ordinance was valid and could go into effect in October as scheduled.

On top of the plastic ban, the city is also trying to discourage consumers from using any type of disposable bags by charging an additional 10 cents for every paper bag.

While this might seem like small change, it has a potentially huge effect. For San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, this new step brings the city significantly closer to meeting its self-imposed goal of becoming “waste-free” by 2020.

A San Francisco-based organization called the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition has fought the ban every step of the way. The group filed a lawsuit against the city in February, claiming that the ban of single-use plastic bags in restaurants violates the California Retail Food Code. “The restaurant bag ban is so invalid,” said Stephen Joseph, who is the coalition’s counsel. “I’m stunned that San Francisco did it.”

After the court ruling, he vowed to take his fight to the appeals court.

Joseph said the city’s ordinance, adopted in April 2007, was not proper because the city failed to submit an environmental impact report detailing the harm that plastic bags bring to the Bay Area.

Though Joseph now practices law in San Francisco, he used to be a Washington, D.C., lobbyist and activist. While living there, he sued the city to remove graffiti, and filed suits against companies for their transfat content, including Kraft’s Oreos.

San Francisco is only the latest of several California cities Joseph has sued for banning plastic bags without releasing environmental impact reports. His quest even piqued the interest of Time Magazine, which in a 2008 profile dubbed him “The Patron Saint of Plastic Bags.”

‘Totally independent’

Joseph started the coalition one year after plastic bag manufacturers approached him, he said. Yet he clearly gets defensive about any accusations that he is serving business interests and goes out of his way to say the organization is not connected with, nor has ever been funded by the American Chemistry Council or Progressive Bag Affiliates, two big names in the plastic bag industry. The group’s website jarringly proclaims in bold red capital letters: “THE COALITION IS TOTALLY INDEPENDENT IN ALL RESPECTS.”

Joseph acknowledged that the majority of the coalition’s members are in the plastics industry. Rather than being polluters, he said, the people making plastic bags are the ones making the true environmental strides. He noted that polyethylene plastic bags are made by refining ethane, a byproduct of natural gas that is already extracted from the ground for energy.

Joseph argues that the “know-nothings” in the environmental community are functioning on myth, not fact. To him, plastic bags are better for landfills, because they do not decompose and therefore do not release carbon dioxide as paper bags do. And paper bags are bulkier than plastic, so they take up more space in landfills.

“I’m not talking about the silly stuff” in environmental journals, he said. “I’m talking about science.”

Joseph refused to identify his supporters within the coalition or San Francisco storeowners who he said support it. There are “thousands of opponents to the ban,” he said, “but they’re not coming out. I can’t name any names, because they are going to be under attack by environmentalists.”

The only member of the coalition named on the website is Joseph himself. In his 2008 interview with Time, he referred to himself as a “one-man show.”

Jack Macy, commercial zero-waste coordinator for the city’s Department of the Environment said the organization’s lawsuit was nothing but intimidation.

The arguments from the industry, and from Joseph’s organization, “are just about every desperate effort they can make to protect the bottom line and to sell more plastic,” Macy said. “They want local government to keep wasting resources to do those studies. They are trying to intimidate local governments to not take action.”

The ordinance had already been delayed once. The Board of Supervisors pushed back the original July 1 start date to give businesses more time to implement the change.

The Department of the Environment has begun a campaign to educate business owners about the ban. Macy said the department is doing “extensive outreach,” including mailings, public events and distribution of materials to post in stores, to inform customers.

Though some business owners express worries about asking their customers to pay for bags, in other jurisdictions the charge has been shown to reduce bag use and save stores money. The charge also makes consumers conscious of their own bag use.

“All bags are bad,” said zero-waste associate Steven Chiv. “We would love to have a universe where everyone reuses bags and brings their own. We want behavior change.”

Initial enforcement of the ban will be relaxed, Chiv said. The department is “less looking to enforce and more looking to inform.” Dollar amounts and strictness of fines have yet to be decided.

“Fines are not our primary focus,” he said. “The threat of it is there, but it’s just a tool to get into a conversation as a unified city.”

The department cites dwindling natural resources, litter, damage to aquatic life and marine ecosystems and incompatibility with recycling systems as reasons for the ban. Macy said only 2 percent of plastic bags used in San Francisco get recycled.

Save the Bay, a San Francisco-based environmental watchdog, estimates that more than a million bags enter the bay each year. “That’s a conservative estimate,” said Allison Chan, a policy researcher for the group. Plastic bags are a problem here not just because they create an eyesore, but also because they get caught in wetlands and endanger wildlife.

In 2007, San Francisco enacted a precursor ordinance to reduce plastic bag use. The goal was to increase diversion of waste from the landfill by 75 percent by 2010 and to achieve “zero” waste by 2012. The city said it met its 2010 goal, diverting 78 percent of the waste stream, largely through mandatory recycling and composting.

“Plastic bags don’t represent a lot of tonnage,” Macy said, “but they are an obstacle toward zero waste.”