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Even in hard times, local governments can at least still afford to tell you what to do. And it's been one year since San Francisco imposed a mandate of sorts. The city banned plastic bags in grocery stores. So far, that translates into five million fewer plastic bags every month.

As part of our Trash Talk series this week on the waste we produce and how we recycle it, David Gorn reports that the ban has also had some unintended consequences.

DAVID GORN: San Francisco politician Ross Mirkarimi didn't know just what a stir he was going to cause. It was a year ago this week when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed his bill to eventually ban plastic bags from the city's grocery stores and pharmacies. And now, cities across the US - including Boston, Portland and Phoenix - are considering similar bans on plastic bags.

Mr. ROSS MIRKARIMI (Board of Supervisors, San Francisco): This has been probably one of the most interesting wildfires of common sense, and I'm delighted and proud that San Francisco was the first city in the United States to have kick-started this.

GORN: And not just in the U.S. Mirkarimi says Paris and London contacted him, and now have passed similar bans.

Here in the States, the ban has had a few unintended consequences in the marketplace as well. North of San Francisco in the small town of Oroville, one manufacturer of plastic bags actually got a boost in business.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GORN: Roplast Industries makes large, thick, reusable plastic bags. They contain more plastic than the flimsy, single-use bags, but in the long-term, says Roplast President Robert Bateman, it's better for the environment.

Mr. ROBERT BATEMAN (President, Roplast): This bag will hold five or six times as much as the standard disposable bag, and it is reusable. It can dramatically change the amount of plastic used.

GORN: Of course, those thicker, heavier plastic bags are still plastic. If you don't like that idea, Roplast has another choice - compostable plastic bags. Now, compostable plastic may seem like a contradiction in terms, but Bateman says it makes sense to use plastic that degrades.

Critics point out they degrade, but they don't biodegrade. That is, they break down, but they just break down into smaller bits of plastic.

Just up the highway, in the town of Chico, Andy Keller has another idea. But first, he has to show off the bag monster. He's stepping into a jumpsuit festooned with 500 plastic grocery bags, the number the average consumer accumulates in a year. The bag monster visits schools to make an environmental point.

Mr. ANDY KELLER (Creator of ChicoBag): Yeah, kids can be a little bit scared by the bag monster (unintelligible).

GORN: It is scary, on many levels. Keller's answer to it is the ChicoBag, an environmentally friendly nylon-fiber carrying bag that folds up into a tiny wallet-sized stuff sack. When the ChicoBag is held in the palm of your hand, it looks like a really, really tiny sleeping bag.

Mr. KELLER: I have one on my belt loop here. People carry them in their purse, you know, in their back pocket. People put them in their cup holder or the glove box of their car, and it allows them to have a bag whenever they need it.

GORN: Now, California's grocery store industry would like to keep its plastic bags. They're cheaper than paper, and the industry says it wants to offer customers choice - paper, plastic and reusable bags. The plastics industry has been more aggressive, trying to halt plastic bag bans before they can start.

The Bay Area town of Fairfax last week abandoned its bag ban under threat of a lawsuit by the plastic bag industry. Fairfax has about 7,000 residents, and Mayor Mary Ann Maggiore says there's no way they could handle a lengthy lawsuit.

Mayor MARY ANN MAGGIORE (Fairfax, California): We were dismayed, but not surprised.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor MAGGIORE: I mean, you know, as soon as we mounted it, we thought, well, let's see what happens.

GORN: What happened was the plastics industry said it would sue on environmental grounds. Sharon Kneiss of the American Chemistry Council says that by banning plastic, Fairfax was giving a tacit endorsement to use paper bags, which could hurt the environment.

Ms. SHARON KNEISS (American Chemistry Council): Bans on plastic bags are not a good environmental choice. Bans aren't the answer. Recycling's the answer.

GORN: The town of Fairfax, though, isn't giving up. It's made its ban voluntary, and Mayor Maggiore says that pretty much all the shopkeepers there have stopped handing out plastic bags. And on top of that, advocates in Fairfax plan to take on the plastic bag industry again. They expect to put the issue on the June ballot.

For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.

INSKEEP: And you can read about other places moving to ban plastic bags at npr.org.

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