"Would you like paper or nothin'" may be the new refrain at San Francisco grocery stores. Beginning last week, traditional, petroleum-based sacks became a thing of the past at the bigger shopping centers (mom & pop stores are exempt). Markets can offer a choice between compostable plastic (although these don't actually compost too quickly in regular landfills), paper, and good old canvas. And shoppers have a couple extra-creative options, too. 'Round here I've seen people carrying their groceries in camping bags and woven baskets that can be worn like backpacks.
My first instinct was that this is a great move. Just because human ingenuity allows us to create all kinds of wacky food additives, drugs and materials doesn't mean everything we come up with should be unleashed. Harmful stuff is banned all the time, and this is an example of catching something on the flip side...an attempt to make changes after decades of environmental abuse.
But upon mentioning the ban to a environmentally active co-worker he surprised me by getting squeamish, wondering aloud whether this is an example of draconian government that is limiting customers individual rights.
After some thought, I think I'm still OK with the ban on principle. For one thing, consumers still have "free" ways of moving their groceries from store to car. Therefore, the ban isn't really changing the shopping experience in any kind of fundamental way. For another, the compostable bags work exactly the same way the other ones do, although they're more expensive for the stores to procure. But if our local health food stores and co-ops can offer them, I think the ones in CA will probably survive the switch. Surely the cost will ultimately be passed to the shoppers, but the environmental protection is worth the extra couple of pennies, I think. In principle, it's like making cars more fuel efficient (and expensive) instead of limiting how much we're allowed to drive.
Unfortunately, paper bags aren't good for the environment, either. In fact, some say that the process of manufacturing them creates more pollution than producing plastic, and it's certainly not good for trees. The best of all possible situations would be if everyone had reusable cloth bags for grocery shopping (or picking up their CSA shares).
Part of me wishes that SF would have gone further and mandated the use of cloth bags -- that would have a real environmental impact -- but I know that there are folks who can't afford to buy them. I only shop for two people and I often need two such bags (which I bought for $10 each) to carry my purchases. A person with a family of 5 might need five bags, and for someone with low income, coming up with an extra $50 (or $20, or $10) for something non-essential isn't feasible.
Here's another thought, though. Because stores give paper and plastic bags away for free, they'd save money if they didn't have to provide them. So in some ways, it would make sense for the stores to help people get their hands on reusable bags. Maybe there could be a way to subsidize the bags so that those who can't afford them can acquire them for free?
Ultimately, we're going to be forced to change the way we transport our food because we'll be left with no other choice. When petroleum runs low, neither paper nor plastic bags will make the list of things we can't live without.