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The Planet

Paper not Plastic

by Corey Binns Grant Delin

May 30, 2007
Ross Mirkarimi has found an easy way to lessen global warming, our dependence on foreign oil, and rapidly overflowing landfills. The solution is in the bag-literally. Each of our featherweight plastic shopping bags carries a hefty cost: Americans use 100 billion plastic bags each year, and toss the majority of them after a quick trip to the store. Since the bags take nearly a millennium to break down in landfills, they'll be haunting the planet long after we tote home the groceries. Today, local governments pay to have wind-blown bags plucked from trees and telephone wires; in San Francisco, cleanup efforts run as high as $8 million a year. Plus, more than a million sea birds and a hundred thousand marine mammals suffocate from plastic litter each year. "Long before I was elected," Mirkarimi says, "I've thought the plastic bag was emblematic of what our country and planet have been suffering from."Last spring, Mirkarimi began efforts to make the bag a historical relic. The 45-year-old member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors authored legislation that bans plastic bags made of petroleum products from checkout counters at large supermarkets and pharmacies. "Banning a plastic bag is just a good first, small start," says Mirkarimi, a co-founder of California's Green Party. He estimates that the plastic prohibition will save 450,000 gallons of oil and prevent 1,400 tons of trash from ending up in a landfill annually.
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The plastic bag was emblematic of what our country and planet have been suffering from.
Despite having (almost) weaned himself from plastic bags, the city legislator admits they can come in handy on walks with his dog. For those particular occasions, Mirkarimi is eagerly awaiting the introduction of durable, biodegradable alternatives at grocery stores in October, when the law takes effect. The law, signed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on the eve of Earth Day, also promotes using recycled paper and cloth bags.Mirkarimi was elected in 2004 to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors as the representative of District 5, which includes the country's oldest Japantown and the famously curvaceous Lombard Street, and his work has repercussions that extend far beyond the boundaries of his district. In our consumptive society, he says, too often we don't think about the consequences of our choices, whether it be toting shopping bags or filling up at the gas station. "We need to make our economy more soulful," says Mirkarimi, who holds master's degrees in both environmental science and economics.San Francisco is the first city in the country to ban plastic bags, but officials in New York, Texas, Iowa, and elsewhere in California are quickly following in Mirkarimi's footsteps. He hopes plastic bags are just the beginning. "We can make great change at the municipal level, but we have to be bold about it. We cannot wilt in the face of criticism that we're out of our jurisdiction," he says. "These are such critical times, we can't wait for our federal and state leaders to do the right thing. We're all on the clock."
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Paper not Plastic