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Seldom recycled, plastic grocery bags face bans in S.F.

In eliminating petroleum-based bags, San Francisco city leaders hope that retailers will adopt biodegradable ones.

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In a trailblazing environmental move that recognizes one of the stubborn shortfalls of traditional recycling, city leaders have approved a ban on nonbiodegradable plastic bags at supermarkets and large pharmacy checkout counters.

San Francisco currently crinkles its way through 181 million plastic bags every year. Only 1 percent of those bags get a second life in products like deck furniture and railroad ties, even after a decade of trying to boost recycling. Nationally, the picture is similar: Less than 1 percent of 100 billion plastic bags tossed each year get recycled.

By voting Tuesday to ban traditional plastic bags, made from petroleum, the city hopes to spur retailers to provide an alternative type of plastic bag – one made from starches. Customers can discard this kind of bag in their compost collection bins, which are widely used here.

San Francisco will be the first US city to prohibit petroleum-based bags, pending expected final approval. But it's in good company internationally, joining countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Environmentalists hope such bans will move into the American mainstream.

"This is groundbreaking legislation that could have a domino effect across California and eventually the country," says John Rizzo, who serves on the executive board of the Sierra Club's San Francisco Bay chapter. "We are definitely behind the curve [internationally] on this."

South Africa, Rwanda, Zanzibar, and the French island of Corsica have banned throwaway plastic bags, as have a handful of Alaskan towns. Bangladesh and the Indian state of Maharashtra, which includes the megalopolis of Mumbai, have also passed prohibitions, saying the bags clogged drains during floods. Phaseouts are planned in Paris, south Australia, and parts of western Canada.

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