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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in California a political battle is brewing over a question heard at every supermarket checkout - paper or plastic? Many say plastic grocery bags are bad for the environment. Now, as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, San Francisco may be on the verge of becoming the first city in the country to ban them.

RICHARD GONZALES: Multiply the checkout routine in this San Francisco store many times over and you have the source of what some experts say is one of the biggest polluters in the city - plastic grocery bags. By some estimates, San Francisco supermarkets generate 200 million of them every year. That's why County Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi wants to banish the bags from the city once and for all.

Mr. ROSS MIRKARIMI (County Supervisor): What it takes from petroleum use in order to make these polyethylene plastic bags and the cost it takes in order to discard these bags begs a larger question - is what are we going to do with the hazards and the environmental adverse effects of these bags.

GONZALES: Mirkarimi's proposals calls on grocers to use recyclable paper, compostable plastic or reusable bags. But that's vigorously opposed by the grocery industry. Peter Larkin, president of the California Grocers Association, says his member stores already have an active plastic bag-recycling program.

Mr. PETER LARKIN (President, California Grocers Association): In our opinion, it'll frustrate our efforts to continue to reduce, reuse and recycle carryout bags. Second, it will raise cost of doing business for us, which will translate to increased costs for the consumers. It may unintentionally lead to the use of paper bags only, which, if that happened, it would increase waste.

GONZALES: The grocers in the city have been at odds since 2005 when officials first proposed a 17-cent tax on every plastic bag. That's when the grocers agreed to voluntarily cut back. But Supervisor Mirkarimi says the program failed.

Mr. MIRKARIMI: Their heart wasn't in it and they did a very lackluster job. And frankly they didn't meet the terms of the agreement.

GONZALES: Grocers Association President Peter Larkin.

Mr. LARKIN: We think it was a wild success. And I, again, do not understand why they continue to say we did not live up to our side of the bargain. I think that that is just false.

GONZALES: What is not in dispute is a potential domino effect if San Francisco bans plastic grocery bags. They've already been outlawed in South Africa, Thailand and Bangladesh. Ireland imposes a plastic bag tax. Larkin says he expects a potential ban here would spread in California.

Mr. LARKIN: Yes, I'm terribly afraid that if San Francisco does it, it may show up in many other communities.

GONZALES: Judging from an unscientific survey of shoppers outside a large grocery store in San Francisco's Mission District, the proposed ban is a popular idea, at least with Pat Coleman.

Ms. PAT COLEMAN (Supporter of Proposed Ban): Well, as far as I'm concerned, if they bag it, I don't care what they bag it in. They can just usually bag it in paper, you know, and I'll recycle the paper no problem. As long as it's got handles on it.

GONZALES: Consultant Michael Dane(ph) agrees.

Mr. MICHAEL DANE (Supporter of Proposed Ban): With all this plastic flying around, it's not only a nuisance but also an eyesore.

GONZALES: The proposed ban is endorsed by a majority of the board of supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsome. Whether it will apply to chain pharmacies as well as the city's largest grocers will be debated later this month.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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