Angelika On October 1st 2012, San Francisco banned plastic bags at all store registers. Even before that, since 2007, there's been an ordinance in place to prohibit supermarkets and drug stores from bagging merchandise in plastic bags, only paper bags are permitted Rundbrief 04/2007). Now, the plastic ban has been expanded to all stores in San Francisco, and only bakeries and restaurants are exempt until 2013. What's more is that stores are required to charge 10c per provided paper bag. Customers who don't want to pay for bags need to bring their own, preferably reusable bags.
As you might know, this process has been well established in Germany since the 1970ies, when supermarkets started charging for plastic bags at the register. But over there, typically, only grocery stores charge the fee, while department stores still hand out bags at no cost. Unlike in San Francisco, plastic bags haven't vanished yet in Germany, so California is clearly ahead in this area. The 10 Cent fee in San Francisco was introduced in order to discourage customers from even getting paper bags at the register. And, I've got to say, this has indeed changed people's behavior since it was introduced, and many are bringing their own reusable fabric bags to the grocery store now.
You might want to inquire how this new system works with the grocery baggers, as you know, it's customary in the U.S. that there's extra employees at the register taking care of stuffing your items into bags. Simply place the reusable bag you brought onto the conveyor belt along with the merchanize and the cashier will hand it to the bagger who will then stuff it with your items. In the meantime, almost 50 cities in California followed suit with similar but less far reaching regulations. On the other hand, if we only leave city limits, and drive down to the suburbs of South San Francisco, they're still using plastic bags free of charge. Reason is that they're part of a different county, San Mateo, which apparently was left behind regarding going green.
As you might have expected, this didn't go over without legal battles. The "Save the Plastic Bag Coalition" tried to stop the plastic ban, but failed. They argued that paper bags aren't necessarily less harmful to the environment than plastic bags. And, curiously, that San Francisco is attracting a great number of tourists, who aren't exactly known to bring reusable bags along with them. The initiative argued that tourists will receive paper bags which then will end up in the trash when they leave. So let me reach out to all our beloved tourists: Please bring your reusable bags with you when you come visit San Francisco, or purchase a nice one here and take it home with you as a souvenir!