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[greenyes] to bag or not to bag (sacramento bee story)


Apologies if this is old news to this list! Myself, I've decided to make
plastics avoidance one of my "spiritual practices." I keep a basket and bags in
the car and on my person whenever possible.
--Carol Steinfeld

To bag or not to bag

By Herbert A. Sample -- Bee San Francisco Bureau
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, December 26, 2004
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here.

SAN FRANCISCO - Consider the ubiquitous grocery bag: Light in weight yet
capable of handling hefty items. Cheap to produce. Given away virtually for free.
Shoppers practically consider it a birthright to be queried, "Paper or
plastic?"
Yet production of the bags consumes natural resources. The bags frequently
end up as litter, which has to be cleaned up. The plastic varieties are
difficult for garbage haulers, recyclers and landfill operators to handle. And all of
that costs money.
So next month, an obscure San Francisco commission is likely to approve a
resolution asking city officials to impose a first-in-the-nation fee on each bag
given to shoppers at major grocery stores.


To outsiders, the proposal to levy a 17-cents-per-bag charge may seem
unconventional if not downright wacky.
But the resolution being fine-tuned by the city Department on the Environment
and its oversight commission resulted from dozens of complaints from
residents about bag litter as well as a realization of the cost to the city and its
waste handlers.
San Francisco wouldn't be the first place to take up the issue. A handful of
countries - Ireland, Denmark and Switzerland among them - already require fees
on plastic grocery bags, noted supporters. A few other locales, such as
Germany, Sweden and 30 towns in Alaska, have banned them outright, they said.
Still, consumers may not take lightly to paying for something that has long
been complimentary.
"Nothing is ever easy when it comes to a behavioral change," said Heidi
Melander, president of the Northern California Recycling Association, a nonprofit
trade group supporting the fee.
"But our stance is that these kinds of changes need to occur if we are going
to make people aware of their impact on the environment and ways they can
minimize their impact," she added.
The proposal arose from hearings the city Commission on the Environment held
this year, including one in Chinatown in which residents and activists
complained that the flimsy plastic bags given out by shopkeepers had created a
significant litter problem there.
Consumers "just discharge it wherever and however they want," said Ivy Wan,
who oversees a city environmental grant at Chinatown's Charity Cultural
Services Center. "By encouraging (people) not to have plastic bags in Chinatown, it
would eliminate thousands and thousands of plastic bags a day."
Commission staff estimated the city spends as much as $2.6 million a year to
clear streets and other public property of bag litter. The city's garbage
hauler, NorCal Waste Systems Inc., figured it spends tens of thousands of dollars
a year clearing its machinery of the bags.
The nearly weightless plastic grocery bags theoretically can be recycled, and
some stores collect used ones. But garbage haulers find them difficult to
handle and often contaminated with dog poop or food waste, rendering them
useless, said NorCal spokesman Robert Reed.
The petroleum-based bags end up dancing in the wind or in landfills,
degrading over thousands of years, if then.
"There are too many plastics in the waste stream," said Reed, whose firm has
taken no position on the fee proposal. "Far too many. And there are far too
many types of plastic in the waste stream. ... A lot is unnecessary. A lot is
difficult to recycle."
Paper bags have issues as well, said Robert Haley at the Department of the
Environment. Millions of trees and a slew of chemicals are used to make them,
even with recycled paper, he said.
Bags often cost more to transport and recycle than they fetch on the market
once recycled.
Enter the bag fee, which initially would be required at the city's 50 largest
grocery stores but eventually could be extended to other retailers.
The idea is that at least some consumers will provide their own bags. Those
who don't would pay the fee at checkout. The stores would retain half of the
proceeds, estimated as high as $8.5 million annually, to subsidize the sale of
canvas and other reusable bags.
The city would get the remainder to help cover the cost of litter abatement
and of resolving NorCal's bag-related problems.
"We're trying to prod consumers, trying to make people think about how they
are going to get what they buy home," said Johanna Wald, a member of the
environment commission. "If you think about it before you go to the store, you will
bring a bag."
At a South of Mission Whole Foods market, Daniel Schambach found no fault
with that.
"I think it's fine," he said. "It seems like people should have the
responsibility to maybe carry their own stuff."
But Barbara Belloli cringed at the thought. "We pay enough for our groceries.
That should be included in the price," she said of bags. "We're legislating
everything, my goodness."
Grocers aren't giddy about the idea either.
"I don't know what else to say it except it's stupid," said Gil Desaulniers,
general manager of Harvest Urban Market. "It would create bad interactions
with our customers."
Paul Smith of the California Grocers Association said he has little
confidence that the city, which is in financial straits, will utilize its fee proceeds
for the intended purposes. From a practical standpoint, he added,
administering the charge at checkout stands will create headaches for shoppers and store
workers.
The American Plastics Council and the American Forest and Paper Association,
dubbing the proposal the "bag tax," also have voiced opposition. Tim Shestek
of the council said plastic bags are not so much waste as a "valuable
commodity" that is recycled into such products as composite lumber. If consumers use
fewer bags, that source of material will shrink, he predicted.
Nonetheless, the commission is expected to pass the resolution on Jan. 25. At
least one member of the Board of Supervisors has voiced support for the
concept.
"We think this solution ... will work." said Wald. "In a sense, it is like
ending free parking so people don't drive too much."

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