Reuters/Kimberly White

How a variety of policies aimed at reducing the environmental impact of shopping bags are working

The amount of plastic bags grocery store clerks stuff full of food is kind of an industry secret, for some reason. And it’s a secret the major grocers are willing to protect, as the city of San Francisco found out when it tried to create a voluntary agreement with grocery chains to track and try to reduce bag use. It was part of an effort by the city to cut down litter and landfill loads to achieve a “zero waste” goal by 2020. The grocery chains saw no problem with reducing use – fewer bags given out means fewer bags they’d have to buy. But counting, and revealing those counts, was out of the question.

In the fall of 2006, legislation signed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger required chain stores to collect and recycle plastic bags that otherwise end up in landfills and storm drains. But the law prohibited any municipality from requiring stores to “conduct additional auditing or reporting." It also prohibited the imposition of any fee to the stores for plastic carryout bags, avoiding something like the 15 cent per bag tax Ireland instituted in 2002. That tax had resulted in a reported 90 percent reduction in bag use in just a few months, exactly the sort of slash in garbage that would have helped San Francisco get a lot closer to its zero waste goal. The fee prohibition—a move Jack Macy of the city’s SF Environment department blames on plastic industry lobbyists—killed a 17-cent tax the city was considering.

They couldn’t count the bags or tax them, but nothing in the law said they couldn’t create an outright ban.

“We sort of took them by surprise with that,” says Macy, with a slight laugh.

Nonetheless, he says it was a success when, in 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to ban single-use plastic bags in chain grocery stores and pharmacies. Dozens of other cities and counties have followed over the past four years, and rising concern about the paltry recyclability of plastic bags has put more and more reusable totes into the hands of shoppers. Macy estimates that upwards of 100 million fewer plastic bags were handed out over the last year in San Francisco. But technically—and by law—nobody’s counting.

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In Washington, D.C. , city officials took San Francisco’s idea the extra, not-legally-prohibited, step of instituting a charge for the use of plastic and paper bags. The ordinance went into effect January 1, 2010 and requires retailers to charge an additional 5 cents for each bag they hand out to customers. So far, the program has been a major success, according to D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, sponsor of the bag tax (“It’s not called ‘the bag tax,’” Wells says of the law, which is officially titled the Anacostia River Cleanup Initiative).

And river cleanup was indeed a need. A 2008 study by D.C.’s Department of the Environment found that plastic bags made up 21 percent of the trash in the Anacostia River, and more than 40 percent of the trash in its tributaries. According to Wells, the program cut bag litter in the river by 60 percent after only five months. It also raised about $2.5 million in its first year, which is being used to build sewer grates to prevent trash from entering the river. Roughly $1 million of those funds have been granted to local cleanup organizations.

“It’s probably been one of the most successful initiatives like it in the country,” Wells says.

The key to that success, he argues, was starting the conversation about the program with the businesses it would impact. Retailers typically pay about 2 cents per plastic bag and 5 cents per paper bag, so cutting down the amount they give away for free made economic sense.

He also found it to be important to not focus only on certain types of businesses, instead applying the fee for all businesses with food licenses.

“These big chains do not want to be demonized as being bad for the environment,” Wells says.

He’s hoping to expand the rule to all retailers soon, which a copycat law in neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland successfully implemented.

Originally, the D.C. tax was expected to generate about $4 million a year. But in practice, it’s fallen short of those projections by almost half—and for Wells that’s not a problem.

“The less money it generates, the more successful it is,” he says. “I’m surprised by any city that doesn’t go this route.”

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For the 14 California municipalities with bag bans in place, a D.C.-style bag tax could still go through for paper bags, but most are simply opting to try to curb their use altogether. In what may be the most ambitious move in this direction, Los Angeles City Council Member Paul Koretz recently introduced a motion to ban all plastic and paper bags in the city. It’s a move he says could make a dramatic improvement to the city and its coast. He estimates that 2.3 billion single-use plastic bags are given out in the city each year, and more than 400 million paper bags.

“We’re aware of how the plastics get into our food chains and our oceans, and how there’s a 30-mile ring of plastics floating out somewhere in the middle of the ocean,” Koretz says. “It made environmental sense to us to just ban all the wasteful and polluting materials.”

His idea is just in its early stages, but he’s hoping to build on a plastic bag ban that’s already in place in the unincorporated sections of L.A. County. He says ongoing negotiations between business interests, environmental groups, and policymakers could have this idea ready for a vote within the next year. For Koretz, it’s only a matter of time.

And while hope for legislative change at the state level isn’t exactly high, Koretz argues that leadership on this issue at the local level will eventually trickle up.

“Certainly I can see in 5 or 10 years that this will be the norm,” he says.

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