NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 3, 2007

The city of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted last week to outlaw plastic checkout bags at large supermarkets and chain pharmacies.  The stores are encouraged to use bags made of recyclable paper, which can biodegrade in about a month, or compostable bags made of corn or potato starch, which have not yet been widely studied.

It is a unique response well suited to a city that prizes its special nature -- one that already has curbside pickup for recycling foodstuffs in compostable bags.  But as other cities weigh San Francisco's choice, they might want to consider some of the consequences, says USA Today.


  • Plastic bags cost about a penny each, paper costs about a nickel and compostable bags can run as high as 10 cents each.
  • The California Grocers Association, which lobbied against the ban, doubts this new industry can produce enough of the compostable bags quickly.
  • The bags also must be segregated from regular plastic, making recycling efforts more difficult.


  • Paper bags generate 70 percent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • This is because four times as much energy is required to produce paper bags and 85 times as much energy is needed to recycle them.
  • Paper takes up nine times as much space in landfills and doesn't break down there at a substantially faster rate than plastic does.

Public education campaigns about littering and recycling can help more than ineffective bans on products that are used every day by billions of people worldwide, says USA Today.

Source: Editorial, "Plastic bag-ban full of holes," USA Today, April 2, 2007.


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