Anti-Plastic Bag Campaign Puts Recycling Woes, Proposed City Fee Front and Center

April 14, 2009

Environmental group Save the Bay today announced a large-scale public campaign against single-use plastic bags, showcasing San Jose's proposed fee on both paper and plastic offenders.

While Save the Bay has long advocated reusable bags, the new campaign attacks the notion that recycling disposable bags helps curb pollution, according to Save the Bay Executive Director David Lewis.

Fewer than 5 percent of the lightweight plastic bags handed out in California stores get recycled, he said. Even after a 15-year anti-litter campaign funded by the state, non-biodegradable bags blow into waterways and threaten wildlife, he said. When bags do make it to recycling plants, Lewis said, they clog up sorting machinery and cause expensive maintenance issues.

Charging a fee for single-use bags is the best way to change people's behaviors, according to Lewis, who cited a 33-cent fee in Ireland that decreased plastic bag litter by 93 percent.

"There's a battle on," he said. "It's the bag versus the Bay and we want to make sure the Bay wins."

Next month, the San Jose City Council is expected to discuss a proposal to tack a 25-cent fee onto paper and plastic bags distributed by retailers.

Councilman Kansen Chu, who initially proposed a ban on plastic bags in 2008, said a year of staff research showed him that paper bags are part of the problem as well.

One 15- to 20-year-old tree is required to produce 700 paper bags, he said, and recycling them requires an output of energy, water and chemicals.

"It's not a tax," he said of the quarter fee. "We're not trying to make money out of it."

Reusable bags are economic as well as environmentally friendly, Chu said. Manufacturing the 19 billion plastic bags used each year in California costs $680 million, he said, and cities like San Jose pay millions in litter pickup costs each year.

Chu said avoiding these extra costs is a simple matter of obtaining a reusable cloth shopping bag.

Save the Bay's campaign consists largely of strong backing for ordinances like these at the local and state level, and a Web site,, that debuted today and features facts on bag pollution, recycling challenges, and a short movie.

To illustrate the difficulties of recycling plastic bags, Save the Bay announced this new campaign at GreenTeam San Jose, one of the city's major recycling companies. Virginia Palafox, the recycling plant manager, said bags get wrapped around the shaft and rotating discs that sort recyclables, jamming machinery and causing sorting malfunctions, like plastics to get mixed up with paper.

The facility collects 250 tons of recyclables a day, and 80 tons of plastic bags each month, she said. The facility hires workers to stand at the conveyor belt and remove as many plastic bags as possible by hand.

As the Bay Area's largest city, a ban in San Jose would have a large impact on pollution, Lewis said, and encourage other municipalities to follow suit. Palo Alto passed a plastic bag ban at grocery stores earlier this year, and Santa Clara County recently postponed a similar measure in hopes that public advocacy will sufficiently reduce residents' reliance on single-use bags.

Chu said the county wanted to avoid a situation where different rules applied in different areas, confusing residents. San Jose, he said, is in a position to take a lead on the issue.

"I'm confident in my colleagues to do the right thing," he said.