Going Shopping? BYOB

For many cities across the country, the question “paper or plastic?” is being answered by local legislators. Plastic bags have been targeted as an environmental plague, literally sweeping across the country as they are discarded after their short life carrying groceries and other goods. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010 only about twelve percent of plastic bags, sacks, and wraps were recycled – meaning a whopping eighty-eight percent of them ended up in landfills, or worse, littered throughout the environment.[1] Worldwide, an estimated four billion plastic bags end up as litter each year.[2] Additionally, the plastic bags consumed in the U.S. require an estimated twelve million barrels of oil to produce each year, also contributing to unsustainable fossil fuel consumption.[3] Given all the environmental harm linked to plastic bags, including hazards to fish and wildlife, many cities are simply choosing to do away with them completely.

In March 2007, San Francisco was the first city in the U.S. to pass an ordinance banning the use of plastic carry-out bags, known as the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance.[4] The ordinance requires large supermarkets to provide only compostable bags, made from vegetable-based materials and with no petroleum products, recyclable paper bags, made from at least forty percent post-consumer recycled content, or reusable bags.[5] After the ordinance went into effect in September 2007, it became evident that the “reusable” plastic bags stores were giving out, which although fit under the ordinance’s definition of reusable bags because they were 2.5 millimeters thick, were treated by customers as disposable.[6] Following many complaints from the general public that such “reusable” plastic bags violated the ordinance, the San Francisco City Council passed a resolution in April 2010 requiring the Director of the Department of Environment to either create new regulations or amend the current ones in order “to ensure reusable bags are suitably durable and do not contribute to the landfill waste stream.”[7] With an eighteen percent reduction in the city’s plastic bag litter in the first two years following the ban, the most current plans for San Francisco are to expand the plastic bag ban to include all retail establishments, not just supermarkets, in order to further decrease plastic bag consumption and litter.[8] The proposal also imposes a ten-cent charge for customers who use paper bags.[9]

San Francisco set the standard for plastic bag reduction ordinances in the U.S. and beyond. Since 2007, dozens of cities have chosen to adopt similar ordinances, and the entire country of China even banned their use in 2008. The most recent large city to adopt such an ordinance was Seattle, whose City Council voted on December 20, 2011 to ban the use of plastic bags and impose a five-cent fee on paper bags at retail stores.[10] Bans have also popped up in small cities, such as recently in Rye, New York, which passed an ordinance outlawing plastic bags at retail stores on December 7, 2011, to take effect May 7, 2012.[11]

Cities tout the positive environmental impacts of banning plastic bags. While it’s clear that plastic bag consumption and litter have decreased, as is evident by San Francisco’s success, it remains unclear whether the overall environmental impact is a step in the right direction. The cities that have banned plastic bags still permit stores to provide customers with paper bags. The small fees that some cities have placed on paper bags may not be a sufficient deterrent to get customers to bring their own reusable bags. Paper bags, though generally recycled at a higher percentage rate than plastic, require significantly more energy to produce and to recycle than plastic.[12] Additionally, the production of paper bags produces seventy percent more air and fifty percent more water pollutants than production of plastic.[13] Getting the plastic bags out of our environment is a great environmental feat, but given the implications of paper bags, those ordinances may not actually achieve a cleaner, greener environment after all. For now, the best way for people to ensure they are doing their part to be sustainable shoppers is simply to BYOB: Bring Your Own Bag.


[1] EPA, Plastics, Common Wastes and Materials (Nov. 15, 2011), http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/plastics.htm.

[2] The Washington Post, Paper or Plastic? (Oct. 3, 2007), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2007/10/03/GR2007100301385.html?referrer=emaillink.

[3] Id.

[4] City Of San Francisco, Calif., Ordinance No. 81-07 (2007), available at http://www.sfbos.org/ftp/uploadedfiles/bdsupvrs/ordinances07/o0081-07.pdf (last visited Dec. 26, 2011).

[5] Id.

[6] City of San Francisco, Calif., Resolution No. 148-10 (2010), available at http://www.sfbos.org/ftp/uploadedfiles/bdsupvrs/resolutions10/r0148-10.pdf (last visited Dec. 26, 2011).

[7] Id.

[8] Huffington Post, San Francisco Plastic Bag Ban Would Also Charge Customers For Paper Bags (Nov. 15, 2011), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/15/san-francisco-plastic-bag-ban-and-fee_n_1096011.html.

[9] Id.

[10] The N.Y. Times, Seattle Bans Plastic Bags, and Sets a Charge for Paper (Dec. 20, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/20/us/seattle-bans-plastic-bags-and-sets-a-5-cent-charge-for-paper.html.

[11] The Rye Sound Shore Review, Rye’s Plastic Bag Ordinance Marks First in County (Dec. 21, 2011), http://www.myryesoundshore.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2132:ryes-plastic-bag-ordinance-marks-first-in-county&catid=34:news&Itemid=53.

[12] The Washington Post, supra note 2.

[13] Id.

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