In the grand scheme of things, this may be more about emblematic change than substantive GHG reductions, but the City of San Francisco’s ban on plastic bags went into effect today. 180 million plastic bags are estimated to be passed out at stores every year in San Francisco. But what kind of change will this create? The little known secret is that paper bags actually require more energy to create than plastic, though on the plus side they will biodegrade sometime this millenium, if they don’t wind up being recycled. So what’s the net gain here? Will San Francisco consumers switch to reusable bags en masse or will that many more trees be cut down?
If you look at this as a straight effort to reduce GHG emissions, this ban probably won’t fly. But plastic bags are a hugely damaging environmental pollutant. Our good buddy bag monster here helps people visualize the prodigious scourge of plastic bags in urban areas, like a fine dust of sand you sort of get used to ignoring. But most of the damage happens where we don’t see it:
And then there is the giant patch of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean that scientists are monitoring, estimated to weigh 3 million tons and cover an area twice the size of Texas. The patch is about 1,000 miles west of San Francisco, but plastic dumped in the ocean here can end up there.
In the meanwhile, lawsuits are popping up left and right as more cities try to enact bans. In Fairfax, officials have decided to make a bag ban voluntary (good luck with that), after law suit threats from the plastic bag industry:
“Basically, we’ve gotten legal advice that we are not likely to prevail if we fight it,” said Councilman Lew Tremaine. “We don’t want to waste a bunch of people’s money, so we’re going to alter the ordinance so that it’s voluntary.”
In July, the council voted unanimously to bar grocery stores, restaurants and retail shops from using plastic bags. The ordinance, which did not require businesses to comply until Feb. 10, 2008, allowed the use of recyclable paper, compostable bags or reusable containers. Violators would have been fined $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second and $500 for any subsequent offenses.
The town approved the ban over threats from the plastics industry, which argued that the ordinance amounted to an endorsement of paper bags, made from trees that consume greenhouse gases. An attorney for Emerald Packaging Co. and Fresh Pak Corp. accused Fairfax of ignoring the California Environmental Quality Act’s requirements for a full environmental assessment before enacting the ban.