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Giving Filmy, Flimsy Plastic Bags the Sack

The city of San Francisco is on the verge of banning use of the plastic grocery bags that have been a marvel (for their carrying capacity) and a plague for 30 years. The ban, supported by six of 11 supervisors and the mayor, was the subject of a three-hour hearing last Thursday.

The city of San Francisco is on the verge of banning use of the plastic grocery bags that have been a marvel (for their carrying capacity) and a plague for 30 years. The ban, supported by six of 11 supervisors and the mayor, was the subject of a three-hour hearing last Thursday. Action was postponed because the ordinance as written would only apply to San Francisco’s 54 large supermarkets; the board decided to consider extending the ban to drug stores and pharmacies like Walgreens. San Francisco takes up the issue again March 22.

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NPR’s Morning Edition did a brief story on the ban this morning, but didn’t really capture something significant: How far behind we in the U.S. are at getting tired of the bags.

The bags were outlawed in South Africa in 2003, they are banned in Bangladesh (where they were blamed for causing flooding during monsoons by clogging drains) and Taiwan. Ireland imposed a 19-cent per bag tax five years ago, and reduced plastic bag consumption 90 percent.

Alaskans have actually been ahead of Californians in this particular environmental effort: The bags are banned in at least 30 villages and towns in Alaska, including the towns of Emmonak, Galena, and Kotlik. And a ban on the plastic sacks goes into effect later this year in Paris; they are outlawed in all of France starting Jan. 1, 2010.

San Francisco may trigger a wave of similar measures in California and further east. Ikea, the trendy home furnishings retailer, imposes its own tax on the bags in U.S. stores starting tomorrow — charging a nickel to any customer who wants a plastic sack. A similar charge has been in place since last spring at Ikea stores in the UK, and the company says it has reduced use of bags in UK stores by 95 percent. Ikea hopes the 5-cent fee in the U.S. cuts bag use in half, from 70 million bags a year to 35 million.

The EPA estimates that U.S. consumers throw away 100 billion of the bags a year. Across the landscape, where they snag on everything and flutter in the breeze, they are a discouraging visual pollutant. And while their energy and solid waste impact may be modest, they should also be an easy habit to kick.

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About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.

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