San Francisco bans plastic bags as they float on elsewhere

The Baltimore Sun

Plastic bags have been in the air and in the news.

Thursday morning, I braved the cold weather to snag "a floater," a blue plastic grocery bag carried into the backyard by springtime winds.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, some plastic bags have been banned. Citing the burden the bags put on the environment, the dangers they pose to marine life and the general nuisance factor, the city's Board of Supervisors recently voted to outlaw plastic bags at the checkouts of large supermarkets and chain pharmacies.

Residents will be encouraged to tote their goods in bags made of recyclable paper, or compostable bags made of potato or cornstarch, or plain old cloth bags. The ban takes effect in stages, starting in six months.

Steven R. Young thinks the ban is a good idea. For more than a decade, Young and his neighbor, Clint Roby, have prowled the streets of Baltimore on cold weekends "debagging trees." Using telescoping poles, about 24 feet long and topped with razor blades, they have brought down plastic bags lodged among branches in Butchers Hill and Patterson Park.

Their efforts have generated a flattering story in The East Baltimore Guild, a community newspaper, and, a few years back, a new pole from the Butchers Hill Association. It has also inspired others, including me, to take up the hobby. A few weekends ago, for instance, I got a great deal of satisfaction from bringing down a flapper, a bag pulsating atop one of our backyard fig trees. Following Young's guidelines, I used a wooden pole. I avoided power lines. And I snagged the bag without hurting the tree.

Young, an associate professor in the modern languages and linguistics department at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that even if Baltimore were to follow the lead of San Francisco and ban retail plastic bags, he and Roby still would have plenty of weekend tree work. "We fish all sorts of things out of trees," Young told me. "Those helium balloons are a big problem; we even pulled inner tubes out of trees."

Recently, the debagging duo traveled to Madison Park to remove multiple bags perched in a tree outside Booker T. Washington Middle School in the 1300 block of McCulloh St. A photo of that bag-festooned tree had appeared on the local Web site

The site takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to snagged bags, treating them as accidental art. When I asked Brian Sacawa, a musician and founder of the site, what he thought of the San Francisco ban, he sent me an e-mail saying that "the situation in San Francisco is certainly troubling as it threatens to make extinct the public and very natural art we promote at" He is joking, I think.

The plastic-bag industry says recycling bags is a smarter solution than banning them. The industry's Progressive Bag Alliance Web site,, promotes the many ways we use plastic bags, including keeping newspapers dry and picking up pet droppings. It also has a tool kit, listing ways that retailers and government bodies can set up programs to recycle the bags.

One such program operates in San Juan Capistrano, a city of about 30,000 in Orange County, Calif. There, used plastic bags are stuffed in one large bag and set out with trash and recyclables, said Ziad Mazboudi, the city's water quality, solid waste and recycling coordinator. At the recycling center, the bags are plucked from a conveyor belt and sent to a company that converts them into new bags, he said.

"It keeps the bags out of the landfill," said Mazboudi. The program, called "Bag 2 Bag," got some startup help from Hilex Poly Co., a leading U.S. plastic bag manufacturer, but now is self-supporting, he said.

In Maryland, the debagging season is coming to a close. Once the trees bloom, fewer bags lodge in them, Young said. "It is primarily a cold-weather sport," he said.

So while the debate about how to cope with them continues, the bags in trees will disappear from view, until next winter.

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