The San Fran bag ban

Paper or plastic? The question gets a little more complicated in San Francisco.

San Francisco, a city never shy to pursue unconventional policies, has outlawed plastic bags. The city council’s decision mandates all large grocery, convenience and drug stores to offer only recyclable paper bags or biodegradable plastic bags made from corn products. The city claims the move will decrease pollution, help recycling rates and even lower its usage of oil by 800,000 gallons per year.

San Francisco is on the right track to encourage the use of bags that easily degrade and can even be composted, but the price of the biodegradable plastic bags needs to decrease. Store owners claim that the corn-based plastic bags are too expensive and new to completely supplant plastic bags. This admission could signal a sharp turn in the direction of paper bags – a shift which should not be embraced.

Plastic is the most ubiquitous member of the bag family currently making up 80 percent of bags used in grocery stores. Besides being made from oil products, they have an abysmal recycling rate that sits around 1 percent. If only paper bags were much better. The recycling of plastic bags takes 90 percent less energy than that of paper, and the production of paper takes four times as much energy as plastic.

The only substantial answer right now is to reuse. As environmentalists gushed about San Francisco’s inspired initiative, the impact of shifting use toward paper bags has been neglected. It would also be beneficial to begin encouraging people to recycle plastic bags at a higher rate.

It seems there is promise in corn-based plastic bags. While maybe not quite adequate for mass use at this time, a more eco-friendly bag would be appreciated (assuming the production is not too polluting or energy intensive). Also, San Francisco is trying to push “paper” bags made from corn starch or potato starch. These bags could even be composted.

The new ban could be effective, but there is more to consider than simply choosing paper over plastic.