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San Francisco Plastic Bag Ban Interests Other Cities

In San Francisco, the age-old question "Paper or plastic?" was answered one year ago this week. The city banned hard-to-recycle plastic bags in grocery stores, and so far, that translates into 5 million fewer plastic bags every month. Now, other cities are considering similar bans, and companies are developing alternatives to disposable bags.

San Francisco politician Ross Mirkarimi didn't know just what a stir he was going to cause. On March 27, 2007, the city passed his bill to eventually ban plastic bags from all the city's grocery stores and pharmacies. And now, cities across the United States, including Boston, Portland, Ore., and Phoenix, are considering similar bans.

"This has probably been one of the most interesting wildfires of common sense, and I'm delighted and proud that San Francisco was the first city in the United States to have kick-started this," Mirkarimi says.

And not just in the U.S. Mirkarimi says Paris and London contacted him and now have passed similar bans.

In the U.S., the ban has had a few unintended consequences in the marketplace. North of San Francisco in the small town of Oroville, one manufacturer of plastic bags actually got a boost in business.

Roplast Industries makes large, thick, reusable plastic bags. They contain more plastic than the flimsy, single-use bags, but in the long-term, says Roplast President Robert Bateman, they're better for the environment.

The company's bag "will hold five or six times as much as the standard disposable bag," he says. "And it is reusable. It can dramatically change the amount of plastic used."

Of course, those thicker, heavier plastic bags are still plastic. If you don't like that idea, Roplast has another choice — compostable plastic bags. Compostable plastic may seem like a contradiction in terms. But Bateman says it makes sense to use plastic that degrades.

Critics point out they degrade but they don't biodegrade. That is, they break down, but they just break down into smaller bits of plastic.

Just up the highway, in the town of Chico, Andy Keller has another idea — the ChicoBag, an environmentally friendly nylon-fiber carrying bag that folds up into a tiny wallet-sized stuff sack. When the ChicoBag is held in the palm of your hand, it looks like a really, really tiny sleeping bag.

"People carry them in their back pocket or their purse or their cup holder or the glove compartment of their car, and it allows them to have a bag whenever they need it," Keller says.

California's grocery store industry would like to keep its plastic bags. They're cheaper than paper, and the industry says it wants to offer customers choice — paper, plastic and reusable bags. The plastics industry has been more aggressive, trying to halt plastic bag bans before they can start.

The Bay Area city of Fairfax last week abandoned its bag ban under threat of a lawsuit by the plastic bag industry. Fairfax has about 7,000 residents, and Mayor Mary Ann Maggiore says there's no way it could handle a lengthy lawsuit.

The plastics industry said it would sue on environmental grounds. Sharon Kneiss of the American Chemistry Council says that, by banning plastic, Fairfax was giving a tacit endorsement to use paper bags, which could hurt the environment.

"Bans on plastic bags are not a good environmental choice," she says. "Bans aren't the answer, recycling is the answer."

The town of Fairfax, though, isn't giving up. It's made its ban voluntary, and Maggiore says that most shopkeepers have stopped handing out plastic bags. On top of that, advocates in Fairfax plan to take on the plastic bag industry again. They expect to put the issue on a ballot in June.

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David Gorn