San Francisco shoppers could soon pay 25 cents a bag if they forget to bring their own reusable bags to the store. Courtesy photo

Small Business Commission backs plans to charge consumers 25 cents per checkout bag

Increase intended to encourage the use of reusables

Despite concerns over financial impacts and a lack of data, the city’s small business advisory panel this week threw its support behind Supervisor Vallie Brown’s proposal to raise the charge on checkout bags to 25 cents.

The Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee is expected to vote Monday on the proposal. If approved, it would take effect in July 2020.

The legislation also bans pre-checkout plastic bags, like those used for produce and bulk items, and requires them to be recyclable or compostable, as checkout bags have been since 2007.

“We’re really trying to get rid of people getting paper also. It’s not only plastic,” Brown told the Small Business Commission recently. “We need to use reusable bags.”

Brown argues that raising the existing checkout bag fee that merchants must change customers from 10 cents to 25 cents, the current charge in 10 other cities in California, will boost reusable bag use and cut down on waste.

But Small Business Commission Vice President Mark Dwight said that The City is unsure what bag use is today and without a baseline it’s challenging to make a case for the fee hike and not possible to gauge its effectiveness. He questioned whether it was worth the hassle it might cause merchants to explain the fee hike to customers.

“I just don’t like to see legislation that has good intentions, but it doesn’t actually address the problem,” he said.

The commission unanimously recommended approval of the legislation, but with the caveat that the Department of the Environment needs to figure out how many people are currently not bringing their own bags before it takes effect. The department has agreed to do the study, the San Francisco Examiner confirmed Wednesday.

Department officials said they did an informal survey after the 10 cent bag fee went into effect in 2012 and found that around 60 percent of shoppers brought their own bags, but could not provide the current percentage. They noted other jurisdictions with 25 cent fees report 90 percent of shoppers bring their own bags.

“You have a data point which now is outdated. Good news it was 60 percent right out the shoot,” Dwight said. “It has now trickled through our whole society here in San Francisco and if it is still 60 percent I would be shocked. I’ll bet that it is higher than that.”

Small Business Commission chair Stephen Adams took issue with the charge, but ultimately voted for the proposal.

“I don’t like this,” Adams said. “I worry about the poor and low-income people, who do bring a bag but for whatever reason what if they forget?”

Brown noted that there is no bag fee for those who are on food stamps. “We don’t want to punish anyone on this 25 cents. Twenty-five cents can add up. We want to encourage people to bring your own bag,” Brown said. “You can carry bags so easy. There is such a variety of bags.”

Alexa Kelty, zero waste specialist at the San Francisco Department of the Environment, said that the 2016 voter-approved state law permits the use of thicker plastic bags and they are seeing more stores use those bags rather than paper bags “probably because it is cheaper.”

“Some of the motivation behind this ordinance was really getting at how can we reduce the usage of these thick plastic bags,” she said.

Miriam Zouzounis, a Small Business Commissioner whose family owns a corner store, expressed concerns about the indirect costs, even though merchants keep the revenue collected for the fee.

“We lose money when our prices go up and this essentially is what is happening,” Zouzounis said. “Your lunch is going to be 25 cents more now. Consumers interpret that as this store is increasing their prices. It is going to be an indirect loss.”

Peter Gallotta, a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, said that they plan to do outreach to consumers and conduct a campaign around refusing and reusing.

“We really want to make that a part of the culture of San Francisco when people say, ‘You know what, I don’t need a bag, I can carry my sandwich just wrapped in the paper.’ That is the culture we are hoping to push forward so that folks are not going to experience that charge.”

Bags aren’t the only concern for Brown. She also said she wants to figure out a way to address materials used in home deliveries, like from Amazon and meal kits.

“When we look at the environment and we look at all the cardboard, the bubble wrap, the plastic, everything that they put in there to drop off at your door or food service at your door we should actually also be charging them,” Brown said. “We are going to work forward on that. That isn’t fair. They are huge issue with our recycling.”

She added, “I think there will be another piece of legislation addressing that.”

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