San Francisco to Ban Plastic Bags

This morning I read over on DeSmogBlog (one of our clients), that Shaky Town is banning plastic bags:

The city’s Department of the Environment said San Francisco uses 181 million plastic grocery bags annually. Plans dating back a decade to encourage recycling of the bags have largely failed, with shoppers returning just one percent of bags, said department spokesman Mark Westland.

Mirkarimi said the ban would save 450,000 gallons of oil a year and remove the need to send 1,400 tons of debris now sent annually to landfills. The new rules would, however, allow recyclable plastic bags, which are not widely used today.

This was of particular interest to me because Ireland implemented a plastic bag tax while I lived there, back in 2002. People grumbled about the 15 cents they had to pay for each bag, but it was a raging success. There’s been a 90% reduction in usage:

The tax of 15 cents per bag was introduced five months ago in an attempt to curb litter, and the improvement had been immediate and “plain to see”, said Environment Minister Martin Cullen. He said that the 3.5 million euros in extra revenue raised so far would be spent on environmental projects.

For Dubliners, it was as much a litter problem as an environmental issue. Frankly, it had the messiest downtown I’ve ever visited in the developed world, and plastic bags were a major culprit. When I go back, I certain notice far fewer witches’ knickers in the trees.

UPDATE: In related news, Metaefficient reports that IKEA is going to start charging for plastic bags. Strong work, you Swedes.

UPDATE #2: Via Neatorama, Ramadhani “The Arusha Cleaner” Juma lives in Tanzania and makes dolls out of the discarded plastic bags he collects.


  1. Hm. It sounds like Ireland didn’t have an environmental problem, it had a litter problem.

    Do yourself a favour though, and weigh a plastic bag. If you’re feeling really ambitious, check its volume. That might give you an idea of how tiny a problem they are, landfill-wise.

    For my part, I love plastic bags. I use ’em all the time, to the point that if I didn’t get them free with purchase, I’d probably have to buy them for my typical needs. The usual life cycle of a bag in my house is groceries -> dog poop -> trash, though many instead end up as waterproofing inside other bags, etc.

    Only a tiny number ever go out of the house without being filled with poop, or dirty clothes, or simply wearing out with reuse.

    Our weekly groceries probably take about 7 bags. I think it would be more of a pain to store and maintain 7 reasonably capacious cloth bags than it is to reuse the plastic bags in a sensible fashion.

  2. Ryan: I mostly agree with you, and I manage maintain about 5 canvas bags under the sink. It’s no trouble, because they sell them at the grocery store.

    I was talking with Peter Ladner, the deputy mayor, recently, and his big thing was organic waste. He said it comprises 50% of the landfills, while plastic bags make up 3%. Mind you, the half-life on the bags is a lot longer.

    And, of course, good environmental practices are going to be “more of a pain”–that’s just a fact of a life.

    Switching from plastic to paper or canvas isn’t going to save the planet, but certainly can’t hurt.

  3. I often reuse my plastic bags, mostly as trash bags for my smaller dust bins.

    That puts me at two minds about this. On the one hand, the revenue for greenspace, waste control, recycling etc. would be great. On the other hand, I would then have to go and buy bags to line my office, bathroom and car trash cans.

    I suppose you don’t get anything good without sacrifice.

  4. When I was in my MBA, we had to work through a case study on plastic bags. We discovered that taxes on plastic bags do nothing to deter use and that most landfill plastic bags are taking the place of bags that would have to be purchased for garbage.

    Now a tax/penalty for disposable diapers — I could get behind that. We used cloth diapers for the first 15 months with our child, saving a huge amount of garbage. (We only switched after suffering whiplash and having to limit our activities.)

    Also, a huge amount of organic waste goes into landfills. I worked for a food rescue and you would not believe how many food companies throw out tonnes of potatoes, meat, vegetables, milk and so on. We figured we were only capturing a small percentage of what was actually out there.

  5. Andrea gets it. Or rather, and much better, gives evidence supporting my guess. 🙂

    The best way to think of plastic bag consumption in a lot of households (Andrea’s study argues for the majority) is that they’re needed for picking up dog poop or storing garbage or for keeping one’s feet dry on a wet day (I’ve actually used them that way on the bike), but on their way into the house they’re also used to carry groceries.

    Indeed, I posit that my super-efficient, multi-purpose plastic bags are more environmentally friendly than your wastefully single-purpose canvas bags, which repeatedly need (water-and-energy-greedy) washing and can’t be used for all these other things I do, and eventually wear out regardless.

    Shame, wasteful Darren, Shame!

    1. I have never seen a canvas bag hooked up on branches along a river bike trail that is submerged for most of the spring when river is high. All you see is hundreds of plastic bags.
      Check this out.

  6. Come on over, and I’ll show the well-worn, never washed canvas bag from Gnomedex 2005.

  7. North American store-issued plastic bags are small and thin and weak, so they do become a throw-away item.

    Back home (Denmark) there’s usually two qualities of plastic bags you can buy(!) when checking out at the super market: Good and great. And everybody re-uses them.

  8. I’m an American who has been living in Germany for the last couple months, and it was a surprise for me at first to have to bring my own bags. But, after getting used to it, I’ve noticed that it really isn’t a problem. After the huge sack of plastic bags I had after just a couple months in London, I think I prefer it this way.

  9. I find that in my town the bag you carry defines who you are. In my case I have a bag made of nylon that can be wiped clean or rinsed. I have had it for several months and it hasn’t really needed any significant cleaning. My bag is a fashion statement and we all compare bags.

    Nylon uses resources to make, but so do plastic bags. Nylon lasts forever, but so do plastic bags, usually in the landfill. When people talk about half life they are talking thousands of years, so for my contribution to make a difference I need to get a product that will last a long time on the outside of the landfill, not destroy trees and it needs to be easy to clean.

    I think I have found the answer and it looks good. I also find that buying post recycled products and recycling the items that I buy in the house and at the landfill help control the problem. The only problem I have is myself when I forget my bag. Then I have to waste time and energy to retrieve the bag. I only shop for two so I don’t need a great many bags, but if I did it would quite an investment and I can see how that would be hard for some people.

    While in Martha”s Vineyard last summer the NY Times gave away free bags with their logo. I”m not sure of the material, but it is strong – not as easy to wash, but looks good and it is large enough to suit my needs. My Thomas Jefferson Monticello bag now has competition.

    To sum it all up, anytime we put things in the landfill even a hot dog we can expect it to be there for a long time, not five years or ten years but thousands of years. There are somethings that break down a little faster but plastics are not among that category, so unless we want landfills with stuff in them for “ever” we need to consider what we do and how we do it.

    I also used cloth diapers for a while. Just one last thought to ponder – with the baby boomers getting older, what about their diapers? In nursing homes that are now required to try and regulate smell, they are double bagging the diaper or depend and then putting it in a bag along with a pair of plastic gloves and disposable chucks, that is a concern. Now they have disposable plastic bed pans and water cups and basins and you name it, it is disposable. Wait till that issue creeps up.

    To properly wash your hands in a heath care setting you have to run the water wash for a certain amount of time, keep the water running while you dry your hands and then use more paper towel to turn the faucets off. It is nuts. Water is wasted in huge quantities and so is paper. Well that is my soap box.



    just an easy to read web site about the ethical dilemma of plastic and therefore paper or cotton.

    We will no doubt use all the oil until it is gone.
    That is just a fact. Saving it only allows the price to go up and our need to find alternative resources diminishes. So with that premise in mind it only makes sense to make higher quality bags that can be reused and will last then to make a cotton bag that will mold and wear out. If plastic does break down into toxic components to the environment, then we need to seal it into things people will not throw away, like a reusable bag. This article opened my eyes to the fact that nuclear energy was the primary energy source fueling the plastic industry, I haven’t verified that for my self, but if it is true, then reusable bags are even more important. I’m still voting for nylon and fashion. It’s like my grandmother use to say – make sure you like the dishes you buy because you are going to have to wash them everyday. She was right pretty dishes are better to wash then ugly dishes. Same with the bag, and being easy to wash is important.


  11. OK, This is too good not to follow up with even though the post is almost 6 years old. A study of the bag ban in San Franscisco suggests that reusable bags are more prone to becoming infested with E. Coli, to the extent that they’ve increased ER visits for E. Coli poisoning by enough to kill about 5 people per year, with loss-of-life costs (not including medical bills!) in the $45M range:

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