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The San Francisco Bag Ban

The San Francisco Bag ban was the first in the nation.

The San Francisco bag ban, first passed in 2007, was the first major law regulating carry out bags in the US.  The ban is in line with the city’s desire to reach zero waste by 2020 and its dedication to environmental stewardship.  The law cited bag impacts including felling of 14 million trees, use of 12 million barrels of oil, and annual deaths of 100,000 marine animals.  Since 2007, the law has been amended to improve its effectiveness. It is expected to produce a drop in bag use by 70% to 90%.

The first version of the SF law in 2007 focused on banning the thinnest type of shopping bag.  This is the kind often known as a T-Shirt bag or Thank You bag made from very thin plastic film.  These thin bags were often less than 1 mil thick and prone to breakage even in the first use.  After passage of this law, use of them in supermarkets and large pharmacies was prohibited.

Instead, the law allowed only reusable bags, specifying that reusable bags must be made “specifically for reuse.” It must have handles.  It specified two different classes of materials for reusable bags.  The first class of materials is “cloth or machine washable material.”  This is a broad category that includes cotton, jute, as well as man made fabrics such as NWPP which are machine washable.  The second class of material allowed for use in reusable bags is “durable plastic that is at least 2.25 mils thick.”  This definition lets plastic film bags to be used at retail so long as it is more durably made. All 1 Bag at a Time bags are compliant for use in San Francisco stores.

The 2012 Amendments to the Bag Ban

There was no bag fee in the original law because, while San Francisco was considering a fee on carryout bags, the plastic industry was successful in passing AB2449, the so-called Plastic Bag Recycling Law. This act prohibited fees of any kind on plastic carry out bags in California. The prohibition on bag fees expired in 2012.

In that year, San Francisco expanded the bag ordinance in three ways to further reduce waste, litter and other bag impacts. It instituted a ten cent fee on carry out bags, and it expanded stores covered by the ban and fee to include all retail establishments in the city.  It further extended the reach of the law to food establishments, including fast food.  Important exemptions to the bag law remain, specifically for bags intended for produce, bulk food, prescription drugs, dry cleaning, and other specific uses.

The definition of a reusable bag also changed in the new expanded law.  It specified that a bag must be made for at least 125 uses, carrying 22 pounds over a distance of 175 feet.  It also made bags subject to provisions in the California Toxics in Packaging Prevention Act.

The new ban is expected to reduce overall bag use in San Francisco by 70% to 90%. The estimate is consistent with such bans that implement fees in Ireland, India and other places. The efforts in San Francisco have provided a model for bag bans all over the US. The ban in Los Angeles County is substantially the same as the amended 2012 ban in San Francisco.