San Francisco may be on the verge of becoming the first city in the country to ban plastic shopping bags because they're bad for the environment.
Some experts say the bags are one of the biggest sources of pollution in the city. By some estimates, San Francisco markets generate $200 million of them every year.
County Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi wants to banish the bags from the city once and for all.
He said, "What it takes in petroleum use to make these polyethylene plastic bags, and the cost to discard these bags, begs the larger question: what are we going to do about the hazards and the environmental adverse effects of these plastic bags?"
Mirkarimi's proposal calls on grocers to use recyclable paper, plastic that can be composted or re-usable bags.
But the proposal is vigorously opposed by the grocery industry. Peter Larkin, president of the California Grocers Association, says his member stores already have an active plastic-bag recycling program.
"In our opinion, it will frustrate our efforts to continue to reduce, re-use and recycle carry-out bags," Larkin said. "Second, it will raise the cost of doing business for us, which will translate into increased costs for the consumers. It may unintentionally lead to the use of paper bags only, which … would increase waste."
The grocers and the city have been at odds since 2005 when officials first proposed a 17-cent tax on every plastic bag. That's when the grocers agreed to voluntarily cut back. But Mirkarimi says the program failed.
"Their heart wasn't in it and they did a very lackluster job and frankly they didn't live up to the terms of the agreement," he said.
"We think it was a wild success, and I again do not understand why they say we did not live up to our side of the bargain," Larkin said. "That is just false."
What is not in dispute is the potential domino effect if San Francisco bans plastic grocery bags. Larkin says he expects a potential ban here would spread in California. The bags have already been outlawed in South Africa, Taiwan and Bangladesh. Ireland imposes a plastic-bag tax.
Judging from an unscientific survey of shoppers outside a large grocery store in San Francisco's Mission District, the proposed ban is a popular idea.
"As far as I'm concerned I don't care what they bag it in, they could easily bag it in paper," Pat Coleman said. "And I'll recycle the paper. As long as it has handles on it."
Consultant Michael Dane hopes the ban passes.
"With all this plastic flying around, it's not only a nuisance but an eyesore," Dane said.
The proposed ban is endorsed by a majority of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom. Whether it will apply to chain pharmacies as well as the city's largest grocers will be debated later this month.