Paper or Plastic? Neither are Good in the Bay Area

In 2007, San Francisco was the first U.S. city to ban the use of plastic bags, followed almost immediately by Oakland and Palo Alto. But now three years later, many cities are also considering introducing a ban on paper bags as well.

While restricting the use of plastic bags has had many positive results, such as keeping the bags from ending up in marine mammals and clogging landfills, many consumers simply shifted to using paper bags. But paper bags also come with an environmental price of their own.

Paper bags actually cost more to produce than plastic bags in terms of the energy it takes to manufacture them. This doesn’t even take into account the millions of trees needed each year for paper bag production, which only increases global warming.

In order to persuade people to start bringing their own reusable bags to the checkout stand, San Jose, Berkeley and Santa Clara County are working to broaden the scope of the ban to include paper bags as well.

The nonprofit environmental group Save the Bay put out their annual report in 2009 that stated that 3.8 billion plastic bags were used every year prior to the ban being enacted. San Francisco officials predicted last fall that the city’s ban on the bags would reduce plastic bag usage by approximately 100 million.

The Bay Area has a history of environmental activism, so it’s no surprise that attitudes toward plastic bag usage have changed in the last few years. Plastic bags are now seen as offensive whereas just a few years ago they were lauded for their convenience factor.

Despite consumer support plastic bag bans have not gone without challenges to their legality. The Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling successfully sued the city of Oakland, California to overturn the ban with the claim that the ban was illegal because the city had failed to study how the increased use of paper bags would impact the environment.

But what needs to be kept in mind is that these proposed bans don’t eliminate the use of paper bags or force people to buy reusable bags. As with the plastic bag ban, consumers would still be able to get paper bags at the check-out counter for a fee of up to 25 cents per bag.

The overall goal is to change the consumer’s attitude towards plastic or paper bag usage through legislation, which can only have a positive effect on the environment.

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