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SF Official, Agency Butt Heads Over Coronavirus-Inspired Ban on Reusable Grocery Bags

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The state says tote bags are back, but SF disagrees

Plastic Bag Manufacturers Fight Back Against Proposed Local Ban
Single-use plastic bags were banned by San Francisco in 2007, but returned during the pandemic
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

San Francisco led the national movement to dump single-use grocery bags in favor of bags shoppers bring from home, ushering in an era of New Yorker tote bags filled with produce and heavy-duty plastic bags sold at the checkout-stand for a buck or two. But now the city has fallen behind the rest of the nation (and much of the state), as it’s kept a shelter-in-place era ban on reusable bags in place as everyone else turns back to more sustainable options.

All the way back in 2007, San Francisco banned single-use plastic bags, saying then that people should either bring their own bags from home when they shop, or pay 10 cents for a paper or reusable plastic bag from the store. The move was hailed for its eye on sustainability (and decried by the plastic bag lobby, which is a real thing), and by 2016, California legislated a similar ban.

That law was temporarily lifted in April when, citing fears that that using bags from home might spread the new coronavirus (COVID-19), Governor Gavin Newsom signed an order that suspended those charges for 60 days. That order expired this week, so the ban is back on. That means that, unless local health orders preclude it, California shoppers can again bring their own bags with which to shop, and stores can again charge customers for paper or heavier-plastic bags.

Berkeley and Alameda County brought reusable bags back right away, the SF Examiner reports, but San Francisco still prohibits them, announcing Monday that reusables of any sort (bags, coffee mugs, straws, and more) are still forbidden. When contacted by Eater SF, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) confirmed, saying, “We are basing our decision off the latest science and data,” and that “an important part of our work includes developing clear and actionable recommendations for both businesses and customers to minimize the risk of virus transmission from the associated activities.”

It’s true, that concern was the reason Newsom first enacted the ban, saying then that requiring disposable bags would “minimize the risk of exposure for workers performing essential activities.” However, there’s little evidence to support reusable bags as a potential coronavirus threat, the World Health Organization (WHO) says, writing that “there is currently no evidence that people can catch COVID-19 from food or food packaging. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and the transmission route is through person-to-person contact and through direct contact with respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes.”

San Francisco’s ongoing ban on bags from home is a stumper for Emily Huston, a co-owner of Other Avenues, a worker-owned grocery store in the Outer Sunset. “It’s just unfortunate,” she says. “You can get a haircut, sweat on people at a gym, all these things involving person-to-person contact in a way that might transmit coronavirus, but you can’t use a reusable bag at a grocery store. It doesn’t make sense.”

Huston says that scores of customers have asked when they can start bringing their own bags, but the current health order means that the best option Other Avenues can offer the sustainability-minded is allowing them to bring their cart or carrier of groceries outside after they pay, and to then bag their items up into tote bags on the sidewalk. Many people do it, but not all. Many, instead, pay for a paper bag that may or may not get recycled later. “We’re not losing money on [paper] bags,” Huston confirms, ”and they’re easy to get. It’s just the waste...”

The mandated 10 cent fee for paper or reusable plastic bags is set to increase to 25 cents in July, San Francisco’s Department of the Environment says, and there are no plans to pause that fee with the pandemic. The best that department can offer is to say that the city is “temporarily suspending enforcement and not requiring stores to charge consumers for recycled paper bags or other checkout bags provided by stores at this time.” But that doesn’t mean you still won’t be hit with fees, as “stores still have the legal right to charge, as they did prior to the ordinance.”

If concerns remain about worker safety around reusable bags, Huston has a simple suggestion: have customers who bring bags from home pack up their own groceries, if they’re physically able. “I can see why a worker would feel uncomfortable about touching someone else’s bag,” she says, so self-bagging (as one has always done at Other Avenues, it should be noted) might solve that problem.

One of the biggest supporters of San Francisco’s 2007 plastic bag ban was then-Supervisor Aaron Peskin, and when he returned to the Board of Supervisors in 2015, he resumed his push to ban plastics, taking on restaurant delivery bags and takeout containers as well. When contacted by Eater SF to see where he stands on the city’s current plastic bag ban, he responded that he’s “dealing with about literally 200 things like this, but I’m taking my cloth bag to my stores.” Here’s hoping that the stores in Peskin’s neighborhood are prepared for a scofflaw Supervisor — or that the DEM changes its mind about SF’s bag ban before the Peskin household runs out of provisions.