MPA Paper

“Paper or Plastic?”
San Francisco’s Plastic Bag Ordinance and the Problem of Substitutes

Master of Public Administration Candidate, 2011
University of Southern California
Price School of Public Policy

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In 2007, the City and County of San Francisco prohibited supermarkets and chain drug stores from providing non-compostable plastic bags at checkout. This policy was intended to help realize San Francisco’s goal to create zero waste by 2020. However, it appears that this policy has resulted in the increased use of single-use substitutes, namely recyclable paper bags, which may create greater landfill waste than plastic bags. Initially, San Francisco contemplated modeling its policy off of that of Ireland’s popular plastic bag tax. However, a comparison with the Irish plastic bag tax reveals challenges to policy portability given the differences in the markets and laws of Ireland and California. Finally, reducing waste from all single-use bags, by expanding San Francisco’s ordinance to encompass all plastic and paper bags, is provided as a policy recommendation for consideration.


Americans throw away more than 250 million tons of trash each year.1 Every day, that averages out to 4.5 pounds of solid waste per person.2 Of that waste, only one-third is diverted through recycling or composting; the rest go into landfills.3 As a result, the average American contributes more than 1,000 pounds of trash to landfills throughout the United States each year. Well ahead of the rest of the country, residents of San Francisco, California demanded that the City and County of San Francisco take a more proactive approach to reducing waste. Consequently, in 2002, San Francisco became the first city in the country to set the ambitious goal of achieving zero waste, with a deadline later set as 2020.4 How it has sought to meet this goal will be instructive for local policymakers also looking to implement policies that promote environmental sustainability.

PROBLEM: Negative Externalities of Plastic Bags

Among the contributors to landfill waste, plastic grocery bags have attracted attention in particular. Plastic grocery bags create multiple negative externalities, including pollution in their manufacturing from fossil fuels, creation of litter, and scarce space in landfills after their disposal. These social costs affect third parties not present when a supermarket employee asks a customer, “Paper or plastic?” Due, in part, to technological advances in the production of plastic bags since the 1970s, the number of plastic bags used and disposed of by Americans has become immense. By one estimate, 100 billion plastic bags are consumed in the United States each year, 99.4% of which go into landfills.5

POLICY: Banning Non-Compostable Plastic Bags

In order to meet the goal of zero waste, the City and County of San Francisco has taken numerous steps to divert landfill waste, including instituting green composting bins that accompany trash and recycling curbside pick up, among others. In April 2007, San Francisco expanded its efforts with the approval of the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance. Effective November 20, 2007, this ordinance prohibits supermarkets with gross annual sales of more than $2 million and drug stores (“retail pharmacies”) with five or more locations from providing any bags at the point of sale except: compostable plastic, recyclable paper, and reusable bags.6 The intended consequence of this policy was that consumers would use substitutes to non-compostable plastic bags that would produce less landfill waste, namely reusable bags. With consumers instead reusing reusable bags, the expectation was that San Francisco would produce less landfill waste.

EFFECT: Increase in Use of Substitutes

Although the ordinance may have met its most explicit policy objective, to reduce waste from noncompostable plastic bags, it may have done so without meeting the city’s overall objective of reducing landfill waste. With a ban on non-compostable plastic bags, we would expect an increase in the use of its substitutes: recyclable paper bags, compostable plastic bags, and reusable bags. Which of these consumers use, whether and how much they reuse them, and how much space they take up in landfills, among other factors, will determine the impact of this policy on landfill waste.

Only one study on consumer behavior in San Francisco since the enactment of this ordinance was identified. According to this qualitative survey of 25 affected San Francisco supermarkets and drug stores in September 2008, nearly all outlets provide only recyclable paper bags, many stores double bag paper bags, and customers do not bring in single-use bags to reuse.7 Although recyclable paper bags can be diverted from landfill waste through recycling, nationally only 38 percent of them are.8 The remaining 62 percent contribute to landfill waste. Compared to plastic bags, paper bags are also sufficiently larger in volume. By the only identified estimate, paper bags take up five times more space than plastic bags in landfills.9 Moreover, double bagging paper bags creates twice as much waste as single bagging. The reduction in plastic bag waste appears to have had the unintended consequence of increased paper bag waste, and potentially an increase in landfill waste overall. Further research could test these findings by tracking consumer use of all types of bags to assess the degree to which they are reused, recycled, composted, and thrown away. Such analysis could help quantify how these choices impact the volume of landfill waste.

COMPARISON: The Irish Plastic Bag Tax

Other jurisdictions have had success in reducing single-use bag waste, with Ireland being the shining example. Originally, San Francisco had considered charging a fee on San Francisco grocery goers for each plastic bag they took at checkout, based on the Irish plastic bag tax enacted in 2002. The Irish government initially set the tax at 15 Euro pennies per plastic bag (approximately 21 cents in U.S. dollars today).10 This was substantially higher than the average willingness to pay, which the Irish government had calculated as 2.4 Euro pennies (less than 4 cents in U.S. dollars today). Despite the cost to consumers, research indicates that most of the public is neutral or positive about the tax. To assess public perception of the tax, a group of Irish economists conducted a phone survey of residents of the largest city in Ireland, Dublin.11 In terms of their attitudes towards the impact of this tax at checkout, 27% responded positively, 60% were neutral, and 13% were negative. By contrast, when asked about the impact of the tax on the environment, 90% were positive, 10% were neutral, and 0% was negative. Even taking the margin of error into account (9.8% due to the small sample size), these results reflect public support for the tax.

The figures coming out of Ireland after the plastic bag tax was enacted also indicate an effective approach. Plastic bag consumption fell 94% after the plastic bag tax.12 Among litter, plastic bags dropped from 5% to 0.32% in 2002.13 However, it is worth noting that a reduction in plastic bag consumption and plastic bag litter does not necessarily mean a reduction in overall waste, San Francisco’s policy objective.

CONSTRAINTS: Different Markets and Laws

Because of the differences in the grocery bag markets of Ireland and San Francisco, the Irish plastic bag tax is not portable to San Francisco. Prior to enactment of the plastic bag tax, Ireland’s supermarkets did not carry paper grocery bags given Ireland’s lack of natural resources (trees for the paper) and the higher cost of importing paper bags relative to plastic bags. Consequently, when Ireland imposed a tax on plastic bags, the only substitute for customers was the reusable bag. By contrast, San Franciscans have had the remaining options of recyclable paper bags and compostable plastic bags. These other substitutes expand the consumer’s choices complicating shifting consumer behavior towards reusable bags.

California state law also prevents San Francisco from imposing a plastic bag tax, and changing that law would prove politically challenging. State legislation enacted in 2006, Assembly Bill 2449 (Levine) preempts all local governments from imposing a fee on plastic bags.14 So, in order for a tax to take effect in San Francisco, the State Legislature would have to change the law or impose the fee, either specifically for San Francisco or statewide. A number of recent bills have sought to impose a fee of 25 cents per plastic bag statewide (AB 68, Brownley, 2009; AB 87, Davis, 2009) without success. Given the state’s serious fiscal crisis, the start-up costs for such a fee program (approximately $300,000 in the first year with $600,000 in ongoing annual costs)15 16 were large enough for legislators to hold both bills on the Assembly Appropriations Committee’s Suspense File.

RECOMMENDATION: Neither Plastic nor Paper

To further make progress towards San Francisco’s goal of zero waste by 2020, San Francisco could consider expanding its current ordinance prohibiting non-compostable plastic bags to also prohibit all paper and plastic bags. This more comprehensive approach would better shift consumer use of grocery bags away from single-use bags and towards reusable bags by eliminating all other substitutes to the reusable bag.

There are a number of elements of a new expanded ordinance that would be key to gaining the necessary public and political support to enact this proposal. To allow consumers, supermarkets, and drug stores time to prepare, this expansion could take effect one year after approved by the Mayor. That would be nearly twice as long as the seven months provided for retailers for the original ordinance in advance of its effective date. Additionally, during this economic crisis, this expansion would reduce the burden on retailers to provide plastic and paper grocery bags free of charge. Moreover, the same state legislation that pre-empted local governments from imposing a tax on plastic bags created new requirements for supermarkets to sell reusable bags.17 Consequently, the infrastructure exists to ensure customers have an option for carrying away their purchases in the absence of free paper and plastic bags at checkout. Moreover, the cost for reusable bags is minimal, with many retailers selling bags for under a dollar, so low-income households should not be significantly impacted. Finally, over the past three years since the original ordinance was enacted, consumers have greatly shifted their habits towards using reusable bags. This will make the public support for making reusable bags the only option greater. Through this more comprehensive policy, San Francisco can make greater strides towards its goal to produce zero waste by 2020.


In these cash-strapped times for the public sector, local governments may need to be creative in the policy mechanisms they deploy to achieve environmental sustainability. Traditional public programs that require government to administer them may be unfeasible given the current budget constraints at all levels of government. By contrast, imposing constraints on the markets of waste inputs may provide inexpensive options to reducing the environmental and health problems associated with landfill waste. Given the innumerable inputs to the waste stream, there are near endless possibilities of policy solutions to reduce landfill waste and improve the environmental sustainability of communities.


I wish to thank my classmates Christine Oh and Yuliya Zingertal for their collaboration in the research for this paper.


1 United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States; Facts and Figures for 2008,”, Last accessed April 5, 2010.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 City and County of San Francisco, “Resolution for 75% Waste Diversion,” Resolution 0679-02, Passed September 20, 2002, Approved October 11, 2002.
5 Mark Halweil, “Plastic Bags,” Worldwatch Institute,, Accessed December 5, 2009.
6 City and County of San Francisco, “Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance,” Ordinance 81-07-106883, Passed April 10, 2007, Approved April 20, 2007.
7 “A Qualitative Study of Grocery Bag Use in San Francisco,” The Use Less Stuff (ULS) Report, September 22, 2008.
8 United States Environmental Protection Agency, 6.
9 “Review of Life Cycle Data Relating to Disposable, Compostable, Biodegradable, and Reusable Grocery Bags,” The Use Less Stuff (ULS) Report, March 28, 2008.
10 Ibid., 2.
11 Ibid., 9.
12 Frank Convery, Simon McDonnell, and Susana Ferreira, “The most popular tax in Europe? Lessons from the Irish plastic bags levy,” Environmental Resource Economics (2007) 38: 1-11.
13 Ibid.
14 Assembly Bill 2449 (Levine), Chapter 243, Statutes of 2008, 08/bill/asm/ab_2401-2450/ab_2449_bill_20080801_chaptered.html, Accessed December 5, 2009.
15 Assembly Committee on Appropriations, “AB 68 (Brownley) – As Amended: April 23, 2009,” 0100/ab_68_cfa_20090505_172623_asm_comm.html, Accessed December 5, 2009.
16 Assembly Committee on Appropriations, “AB 87 (Davis) – As Amended: April 27, 2009,” 0100/ab_87_cfa_20090505_172618_asm_comm.html, Accessed December 5, 2009.
17 Assembly Bill 2449 (Levine), Chapter 243, Statutes of 2008, 08/bill/asm/ab_2401-2450/ab_2449_bill_20080801_chaptered.html, Accessed December 5, 2009.


Assembly Bill 2449 (Levine), Chapter 243, Statutes of 2008. 08/bill/asm/ab_2401-2450/ab_2449_bill_20080801_chaptered.html. Accessed December 5, 2009.

Assembly Committee on Appropriations. “AB 68 (Brownley) – As Amended: April 23, 2009.” 0100/ab_68_cfa_20090505_172623_asm_comm.html. Accessed December 5, 2009.

Assembly Committee on Appropriations. “AB 87 (Davis) – As Amended: April 27, 2009.” 0100/ab_87_cfa_20090505_172618_asm_comm.html. Accessed December 5, 2009.

“A Qualitative Study of Grocery Bag Use in San Francisco.” The Use Less Stuff (ULS) Report. September 22, 2008.

City and County of San Francisco. “Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance.” Ordinance 81-07-106883. Passed April 10, 2007. Approved April 20, 2007.

City and County of San Francisco. “Resolution for 75% Waste Diversion.” Resolution 0679-02.Passed September 20, 2002. Approved October 11, 2002.

Convery, Frank, Simon McDonnell, and Susana Ferreira. “The most popular tax in Europe? Lessons from the Irish plastic bags levy.” Environmental Resource Economics (2007) 38: 1-11.

Halweil, Mark. “Plastic Bags.” Worldwatch Institute. Accessed December 5, 2009.

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States; Facts and Figures for 2008.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Last accessed April 5, 2010.

“Review of Life Cycle Data Relating to Disposable, Compostable, Biodegradable, and Reusable Grocery Bags.” The Use Less Stuff (ULS) Report. March 28, 2008.