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SF's Plastic Bag Ban Followed By Increased Plastic Litter

David Godow
April 22, 2011, 8:00am

Municipalities (and now states) around the country are considering plastic bag bans to mitigate the problem of plastic litter. The District of Columbia, which made history by instituting the first tax on plastic bags in the country last year, has seen mixed success towards that goal. Other tries have led to less ambiguous failures.

San Francisco, which implemented a total ban on plastic bags in December 2007, provides one such example. The city's 2008 litter audit, which sampled trash from the city's streets in April, found that though litter as a whole was down about 17 percent compared with the previous year, the proportion of plastic in it actually rose from 20 to 24 percent. San Franciscans actually started dropping more plastic litter -- including more plastic bags -- after the ban went into effect.

Interestingly, a report by the non-profit group Use Less Waste (HT: Metro Washington Council of Governments) found that most purveyors of plastic bags had simply switched over to paper bags. Paper bags, according to a U.K. government study, actually produce a greater environmental impact (including production and transportation costs) than their plastic cousins. Moreover, unlike plastic bags, paper bags don't often see secondary use as trash bin liners Thus, the net environmental impact of San Francisco's bag use might actually have been worse following the ban.

Recognizing the ecological harm paper bags can do, many of the plastic bag bans now being considered include a small tax on paper bags. Still, consumers who don't end up bringing (or buying) reusable bags may be left with little option but to take paper. Even reusable bags themselves often have their own downsides for environmental (and personal) health. Should the use of all these items be restricted too?


David Godow is Research Assistant


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