San Franciscans frustrated by plastic bags piling up in their cupboards and trash bins can rest easier: The city says its ban on reusable bags in grocery stores will be rescinded within days.
The city, along with most Bay Area counties, banned reusable shopping bags at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic because of concerns they could carry the virus into stores. Now, public health officials say, there’s little risk of such transmission.
At the same time, San Francisco temporarily stopped enforcing its ban on single-use plastic bags. It has allowed plastic bags to proliferate, and retailers aren’t charging customers for any type of bag.
Environmentalists worry that the resurgence of throwaway culture could undo green habits that consumers have adopted and lead to more plastic pollution in wildlife habitats. They’re also frustrated that San Francisco has been slower to allow reusable bags back in stores when other counties, such as Alameda and Santa Clara, have already lifted their bans.
Charles Sheehan, a spokesman for the city’s Department of the Environment, said San Francisco has reviewed the latest science and is working to rescind the prohibition on reusable bags “very soon.”
“It should be released in the next couple of days,” he told The Chronicle on Wednesday. “We’re hoping to get back to some of our best practices in terms of the environment, now that we know how to do that safely.”
The move comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has advised cities and counties that they can safely allow reusable bags back in stores.
On Monday, Newsom reinstated California’s ban on single-use plastic bags, a law he had suspended via executive order when the pandemic hit in March as a “cautionary measure” to protect frontline workers.
Reinstating the law also requires retailers to resume charging customers at least 10 cents for bags made of recycled paper and thicker reusable plastic. Retailers were allowed to provide bags for free while the law was suspended.
“With the temporary suspension now expired, California is supporting responsible actions to sustainably protect both our health and our environment,” said Erin Curtis, a spokeswoman for the California Environmental Protection Agency.
She added, “Before the single-use plastic bags ban, billions of bags polluted California’s waterways, streets and coastlines.”
San Francisco has its own ordinance banning single-use plastic bags, and similarly suspended enforcement during the pandemic. That move drew national attention, given that it was the first major city in the country to ban plastic bags in 2007.
Sheehan said the city will wait longer to resume enforcement of its plastic-bag ban, until after reusable bags are reintroduced. He said there will be a “transitional education period” to notify retailers.
Miriam Gordon, policy director for Upstream Solutions, an environmental advocacy group, said the dramatic increase in single-use plastics has been unnerving for San Franciscans concerned about the global threats of climate change and plastic pollution.
“We’re exchanging crises, and just exacerbating two environmental crises that are going to be with us for far longer than the pandemic,” Gordon said.
Like many eco-conscious residents, she has resorted to a tedious routine to avoid taking home plastic bags from shopping trips: Gordon loads groceries back into her cart and bags them in reusables outside the store.
Gordon said San Francisco’s decision to reverse the ban on reusable bags is more aligned with science on virus transmission. She said the city also needs to revisit other bans on reusable cups and bulk-food bin sales.
Most of California, with the exception of about a dozen counties, has followed the state’s public health guidelines that now allow shoppers to bring reusable bags into stores, as long as they bag their own groceries and the bags stay in their carts. In the Bay Area, San Mateo and Marin counties are among the holdout counties.
The state’s guidelines to allow reusable bags are based largely on a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said that although the virus can live on surfaces, there are no documented cases in which it has been transmitted to a person from a surface.
Sheehan said San Francisco’s impending reversal of the ban on reusable bags reflects the “changing science in terms of contact transmission.”
“Early on in this, when science was changing, we didn’t know the virus as well as we do today,” he said.
Environmentalists also blame the situation on the plastics industry. As the coronavirus spread, lobbyists for plastics companies pushed public health officials to promote single-use packaging as a sanitary precaution.
On Monday, more than 125 public health experts and workers released a letter disputing such safety claims, stating that bags and other reusable containers “can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.”
Mark Murray, director of Californians Against Waste, a recycling advocacy group, said that while he doesn’t criticize county health officials for their early precautions, reusable bag bans were always arbitrary. If the virus were easily transmitted on surfaces, he said, it would just as likely be on people’s clothes.
“There has never been any evidence anywhere that reusable bags were a transmitter for COVID or any other virus,” Murray said.
He said the remaining counties in California with bans on reusables have “left stores in an impossible position” because single-use plastic bags are illegal, and the pandemic has caused a shortage of paper bags and reusable thicker plastic bags.
“For stores, I think it’s a matter of which law are we going to ignore,” Murray said. “It’s hard to shake that habit of ignoring laws, and they’re going to ignore the ones that really count.”