Plastic Bag Bans: Do Pros Outweigh Cons?

Apr 30, 2014
Originally published on April 30, 2014 4:51 pm

The Chicago City Council voted today 36 to 10 to ban plastic bags starting next year. The ordinance prohibits large retailers from using plastic bags; it would not apply to restaurants and mom and pop stores.

The Retail Merchants Association says the measure will raise costs for retailers, put jobs in jeopardy and make businesses rethink setting up shop in Chicago.

Those are all concerns that San Francisco dealt with when it became the first major city in the country to issue a plastic bag ban in 2007.

Guillermo Rodriguez of the San Francisco Department of the Environment joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss how those concerns played out in his city.


  • Guillermo Rodriguez, spokesman for the San Francisco Department of the Environment.
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


Well, today, the city of Chicago is considering a ban on plastic bags. It would prohibit large retailers from using them, but it would allow plastic bags in restaurants and some smaller mom-and-pop stores. About 160 other cities and counties in this country have some form of a plastic bag ban, including San Francisco, which became the first city in the country to issue a ban back in 2007. So what can cities like Chicago learn from San Francisco on this issue?

Guillermo Rodriguez of the San Francisco Department of the Environment joins us from HERE AND NOW contributing station KQED. Welcome.

GUILLERMO RODRIGUEZ: Thank you for having me.

HOBSON: Well, tell us about how this went down in San Francisco. How difficult was it to put a ban into effect?

RODRIGUEZ: Frankly, it wasn't that difficult in San Francisco. In 2007, we started off with a ban of single-use plastic bags at supermarkets, and recently expanded the ban to include all retail in 2012. And then most recently, just last year, we expanded it completely to include food establishments. So, from San Francisco's perspective, it wasn't difficult, and frankly, most consumers have been generally supportive.

HOBSON: But not everyone. There have been people who say this is something that the nanny state would do. Also, Retail Merchants Association says the measure in Chicago is going to raise costs to retailers and potentially put jobs in jeopardy. I know you faced similar concerns in San Francisco.

RODRIGUEZ: In San Francisco, similar arguments that Chicago is hearing and other cities across the country that are debate check-out bag ban, and the biggest issue that we had in San Francisco that we learned talking to merchants was essentially, they didn't want to be the individual to have to explain it to their customers why they couldn't have a free bag or why they're being charged.

And so really, what we were able to do in San Francisco is to say ah-ha, if your issue is not wanting to have to explain it to your customers, then we as the city will explain it. And we launched a great campaign to educate consumers and residents about why it's important to bring your own bag, why it's important not to use these, you know, flimsy, single-use plastic bags that sit in a drawer for many of us and do nothing.

And so we were really able to educate folks, and it's been, you know, relatively successful. We haven't heard more complaints from merchants claiming that it's an economic loss for them. In fact, I think for many of them, anecdotally, they're actually saving money, because they're not purchasing as many bags as they once were.

HOBSON: Well, make your case, because there are a lot of people listening to this who live in places where it is perfectly legal and accepted to get plastic bags at the supermarket or anywhere else and take those groceries home with you in a plastic bag. Why are they so bad for the environment, as you and the city of San Francisco and clearly many other places across the country see?

RODRIGUEZ: The issue with single-use plastic bags are many. From an environmental perspective, they often end up in the Bay. They go into our storm drains. From a local government perspective, these add costs. They muck up our cleaning systems. They muck up our ability to keep other debris from ending up in the Bay, and there's a real cost to taxpayers. There's a real cost to individuals when we have to go back and do lots of maintenance and realize that the primary reason that we're having trouble is that these single-use plastic bags are getting into the storm drains. They're getting our recycling ability to separate out other waste, and they're ending up in the Bay.

HOBSON: What about paper bags? Because many people say that that's not a good alternative.

RODRIGUEZ: In San Francisco, it's an alternative. We really think the most important aspect is to reuse. And when we change that behavior, it really doesn't matter if it's a plastic bag or a paper bag. People are bringing their own reusable bag to the grocery store.

HOBSON: Well, and I am one of those people that, as often as I can remember to do it, I do bring that reusable bag. But not everybody does that. How common is that in San Francisco? Does everybody walk around with a tote bag ready to take their groceries home if they need?

RODRIGUEZ: Not everyone, but we work very hard at reminding folks. We worked with merchants and a couple of grocery stores, just as you walked into the store, right on the floor is just a little, simple reminder. Did you bring your bag? And, you know, frankly a lot of folks are just getting very comfortable to reusing their own bag.

And if you think about success, not just here in San Francisco, but throughout the state of California, we have over 100 cities now in California that have passed similar bans. Our state legislature is thinking about putting a statewide ban. And really, it's really the merchants' associations, the grocers in California that are saying, you know what? We just need one law across the entire state so that we can all comply. And we think that's great.

HOBSON: You know, one of the concerns that was brought up here in our office was that dog owners sometimes get to use these bags, these plastic bags that they bring home from the store, to pick up after their pets. What do you say to those people? What should they be doing?

RODRIGUEZ: That's a very important question. In San Francisco, we actually have more pets, dogs and cats, than we do children. So clearly, an important constituency that's very important to us, and so we really try to rely on alternatives. If you get the home paper delivered, it often comes in a plastic bag. If you pick up dry cleaning, it comes in a plastic bag.

And so there are just alternatives, and there's creative ways to think about how to capture your pet's waste and dispose of it properly without having just to rely on a single-use plastic bag.

HOBSON: Guillermo Rodriguez of the San Francisco Department of the Environment. San Francisco was the first city to put out a plastic bag ban. That happened back in 2007. Guillermo, thanks so much.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Jeremy.


So, Jeremy, there is a conversation on Facebook. Monique Coppola(ph) - hi, Monique - writes: In New York, I see plastic bags flying everywhere. They end up in the ocean in massive garbage patches. The argument is always a ban hurts jobs and businesses. We just heard that. But she says without a healthy planet, there will be no jobs or business.

Chris Truxler(ph) writes: I've heard convincing arguments that if bags are recycled, it's better for the environment, but they take up much less natural resources during production than the heavy synthetic bags everyone has and, honestly, few of us reuse.

And then John Flowers(ph) writes: You pay five cents for a plastic bag here in D.C., and that cuts down on bags, and the money goes to help the river. So weigh in, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.