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USA - San Francisco ponders ecology tax for grocery bags

San Francisco, which has long prided itself on environmentally friendly policies, is debating whether it should become the first U.S. city to tax grocery bags to encourage recycling.

Reuters reports that the city's Department of the Environment will vote on whether to recommend a 17 cent fee on each bag, be it paper or plastic, in an effort to curb the use of an estimated 50 million bags a year in the Californian city. An economic impact study and city legislative review still lie ahead, which means it would likely be 2006 before such a measure would take effect if it passes, said Ross Mirkarimi, a city legislator who backs the idea.

Environmentalists say that plastic bags create significant litter problems, are rarely recycled and are a threat to marine life. They add that 14 million trees a year are needed to make 10 billion paper grocery bags nationwide. The city uses 90 percent plastic, 10 percent paper, so the problem is largely plastic.

The Environment Department says the 17 cents figure represents costs to the city to clean up and dispose of each plastic bag. "We would be setting a trend, certainly, of a city of our size to be issuing this kind of supplantation of plastic bags for an alternative, something more environmentally friendly," Mirkarimi said in an interview. Mirkarimi and others backing the idea hope consumers will change to reusable cloth bags or recycle plastic an paper bags. Plastics industry groups oppose the measure and dispute some of the statistics used by San Francisco officials.

Donna Dempsey, an official at the Society of the Plastics Industry, said, for example, that a San Francisco Environment Department claim that the United States uses 12 million barrels of oil annually to make 30 billion plastic bags is just wrong. Instead, she gave a figure of one million barrels of naphtha, an petroleum derivative. California state legislators may also consider the issue later in the year. Assemblyman Paul Koretz said he was considering new legislation aimed at reducing the amount of overall packaging American consumers use, although a similar bill of his did not even get out of committee two years ago.

"Bag fees are working in Ireland, Australia, Taiwan Bangladesh and other places," he said in an interview. "Far too many producers and retailers only consider price and consumer convenience in their packaging decisions and leave the public to foot the bill." Some countries already charge for
grocery bags, including Ireland, which imposed a 15 cent fee per bag in 2002. Shoppers in other countries such as Russia have long relied on bringing their own fishnet bags and even shopping strollers to haul home groceries and other goods.



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