San Francisco’s plastic bag ban is safe, a California Court of Appeals unanimously decided this week.
The lawsuit taken up by the court had been initiated by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, which aimed to roll back the expansion of San Francisco’s plastic bag ban in 2012 and 2013. San Francisco banned plastic bags in grocery stores and pharmacies in 2007, extending the ban to retail stores in 2012 and restaurants in October 2013.
The court’s decision to uphold the ban could pave the way for other cities to enact similar ordinances — bans that since San Francisco’s in 2007 have been spreading throughout the U.S. In California alone, nearly 90 cities and counties have enacted plastic bag bans. San Diego is considering implementing a ban, and Denver and New York City are both considering plastic bag taxes of 5 or 10 cents, ordinances that would be similar to existing taxes in places like Washington, D.C. In 2012, Hawaii became the first state to adopt a plastic bag ban. As with most other bans, environmental protection was at the forefront of the fight to ban plastic bags in Hawaii.
“Being a marine state, perhaps, we are exposed more directly to the impacts of plastic pollution and the damage it does to our environment,” Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii chapter, said. “People in Hawaii are more likely to be in the water or in the outdoors and see the modern day tumbleweed — plastic bags — in the environment.”
Plastic bags are the fourth most commonly found piece of ocean litter, according to the Ocean Conservancy, and are eaten by animals such as sea turtles and albatross. Bag bans seek to reduce that litter, but so far, not much research has been done on whether they work, partly because many bans don’t cover enough of the population or haven’t been in place long enough for a thorough study. But once a plastic bag ban in Los Angeles takes effect in 2014, the bans in California will cover a third of the state’s population, meaning there should be ample information to study whether a ban on plastic bags is effective in reducing waste on beaches in California.
Pollution is the main concern of advocates of plastic bag bans, but data on the carbon emissions of plastic bags versus reusable bags is scarce. It has been found that plastic bags take less energy to produce than paper bags; however, plastic bags take hundreds of years to biodegrade, and paper bags don’t cause the kind of marine pollution that plastic bags do. One study found that a canvas tote bag would need to be used 171 times to break even with the carbon impact of one plastic bag. If more items can fit into reusable bags than plastic bags, that ratio goes down.
Because plastic is made from petroleum, the carbon-intensity of these bags is more complicated than simply measuring the energy used to form them. In the U.S., plastic bags take about 12 million barrels of oil to produce each year, but some bags made of other materials are less energy-intensive.