A number of people have been asking me to weigh in on San Francisco’s recent decision to postpone levying a 17-cent fee on paper or plastic shopping bags. Instead of a per-bag fee, in November 2005 the city set the goal of reducing 10 million paper and plastic shopping bags over the next twelve months. Seventeen cents was the amount that San Francisco Department of Environment researchers estimated would be required to cover both the costs of pick-up and disposal as well as to launch a campaign to increase the pool of reusable cloth bags.

San Francisco city residents use between 80 and 150 million paper and plastic shopping bags per year. The country’s annual tally of polyethylene shopping bags tops 100 billion, according to Elizabeth Royte (Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, p. 192.) Plastic bags become airborne, litter streets and snag on tree limbs, clog sewers and storm drains, and are a general bane to solid waste collectors. Because both paper and plastic have significant upstream impacts in their manufacture, and both are ultimately short-term disposables, the ideal solution is something that’s durable and long-lasting rather than landfill bound. In other words, a system – not a preferred material.

Some countries have already banned plastic shopping bags outright. Ecologist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai has proposed that her native country of Kenya ban plastic bags because they blow around, collect water, and serve as ready breeding grounds for mosquitoes which then become vectors for malaria. Ireland has achieved radical reductions in plastic shopping bag consumption with a 10-cent fee at the counter. Other countries including Australia are following suit.

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome’s office began seriously considering the 17-cent fee on both paper and plastic shopping bags, people in Northern California, across the state, and the entire country took notice. Disposable plastics are becoming an increasing burden for municipalities everywhere. States like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, and others have already become waste depositories for states whose landfills are maxed out. The number one export to Asia from the West Coast is now used corrugated cardboard boxes. And this is not just a land-based quagmire. For many years, marine researchers have been reporting troublesome findings about the concentration of plastics in the stomachs of fish and sea birds and the contamination of beaches and seabeds. According to Dr. Charles Moore, the 500 square-mile area known as the North Pacific subtropical gyre contains at least 10 pounds of plastic for each pound of zooplankton. It’s gruesome, really.

After some careful study, in November 2005 San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors decided not to levy a fee on shopping bags. Instead, over the next year, the city will attempt to voluntarily reduce 10 million bags from its annual waste stream. According to a press release from the San Francisco Department of the Environment: “A reduction of 10 million bags will keep 95 tons of material plastic out of San Francisco’s waste stream, and will reduce San Francisco’s contribution of greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1 million pounds of CO2. This is equivalent to 44,000 gallons of oil or taking more than 14,000 automobiles off the road for a day.”

Obviously, this is not the far-reaching initiative that many of us hoped for. Empirical evidence from around the world shows that the most effective way to shift behavior is through financial penalties such as the proposed fee on bags. In the mean time, the Department of the Environment will be allowed to carefully assess the progress of the experiment. After that time, the bag fee proposal can once again be placed on the table.

My preliminary investigations uncovered a few contributing factors leading to the decision. Realizing the domino effect that could take place if San Francisco placed a fee on disposable shopping bags, a coalition of paper, plastic, bag manufacturers, and retail grocery trade associations among others put up a considerable sum (upwards of a million dollars) to hire a lobbyist and launch a campaign to thwart the proposal. This is typical of the push-pull struggles between municipalities and private industry that have been brewing for decades. In Europe, extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws have successfully placed some of the financial burden for waste disposal on the businesses that generate it. So far in the U.S., corporate interests have won the battle, and waste disposal remains a civic responsibility and burden.

The coalition used a few key arguments in tipping the scale away from a bag fee. Concerns were raised about the impact on dog owners and pedestrians if there weren’t enough plastic bags to scoop poop with. (No kidding.) Cautions were also raised about potential discriminatory effects that a fee might have on less affluent residents. A training program was cobbled together to help clerks become more effective baggers. Ultimately, the bag-fee opponents succeeded in shifting the debate from one of reduction to recycling, by arguing that the responsibility for waste disposal lies with local government rather than retailers and manufacturers.

On a brighter note, if the 10 million per year bag reduction is not met, there is still a chance that the city can be shown what a groundbreaking and important precedent this would set not just for Northern California, but for the entire state and the nation as a whole. Then and only then can we begin that journey of a thousand steps to put this legacy of disposability behind us.