Plastic Bags

Frequently Asked Questions about Bags at the Farmers Market

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market vendors only dispense bags that are fully compostable or recyclable within the City of San Francisco’s waste collection program, such as compostable BioBags® and paper bags. Plastic bags do not meet this criteria and are no longer distributed at the market.

Will there be a charge for the new bags?

BioBags and some paper bags cost significantly more than cheap, fossil fuel-derived plastic bags. Our new policy allows each market seller to decide how to best recover this cost from customers (using incentives, surcharges, etc.). We believe that shoppers, not farmers and food producers, should bear the financial burden for the bags they use. You can

help support your farmers by bringing your own bags.

What’s wrong with plastic bags?

In a sustainable food system, it’s not only the food that’s important, but also how it is packaged and carried home. Plastic bags are one of the most ubiquitous products in the world, and over a million of them leave the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market each year. Only 1 to 4% of bags in the US are recycled.

Plastic bags have detrimental impacts at every step in their life cycle, such as the extraction of the petroleum and natural gas used in their production, the energy consumed and pollution generated in the manufacturing process, and the fact that most of them end up in the landfill.

Cutting back on plastic bag use is one way every individual can make a difference. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is doing its part by eliminating plastic bags from the market, and we hope you will take the important step of bringing your own reusable bags.

What are the compostable bags made of? Do they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

BioBags are made in San Leandro out of Mater-Bi™, a resin manufactured in Italy out of starches, glycerines, and other materials that come from corn (it may also contain some canola- and sunflower-derived products). Mater-Bi is certified GMO-free by a European third party certifier.  Mater-Bi is currently not manufactured in the United States because GMO-free corn is not available here.

Does the corn in these bags compete with food production?

The role of compostable products made from corn starch is simply not that significant. Currently the worldwide production of compostable materials uses 200,000 tons of starch. Europe alone produces 8 million tons of corn starch. This means that with just 2.5% of its corn starch production, the European Union alone could provide all of the starch needed for worldwide production. (answer courtesy Ecology Center)

The makers of Mater-Bi are investigating the possibility of making the resin from non-food crops grown on more marginal land, such as switchgrass, but it is currently not economically feasible.

Are BioBags really better than plastic?

Single-use disposable items are never truly sustainable. The greenest solution is to reduce bag consumption and reuse the bags you have. But everyone forgets their bag from time to time, and we want to provide the most environmentally friendly alternative available.

By most measures, BioBags are the best single-use option we know of. Life cycle assessment studies (which calculate the impacts of a material at every stage of its life) indicate that BioBags are somewhat less harmful to the environment than plastic or paper by most measures (for example, plastic bags have three times the global warming potential, cause three times the air pollution, and use slightly more energy as compared to BioBags). There are some trade-offs; for example the BioBag was shown to cause more salification (emission of salts) than the plastic and paper bags.

Some sellers use paper bags, which are either recyclable or compostable and can also be made of recycled materials, but they require a great deal of energy to produce and have other drawbacks. We are keeping our eyes open for new bag technology should it become available.

BioBags and paper bags are a stopgap solution until we’ve all trained ourselves to bring our own reusable bags to the market every time we shop. (You can even re-use the paper and BioBags.)

For a detailed life cycle assessment of various types of single-use bags, download this PDF >
A summary of this study can also be found on the Mater-Bi website.

I’ve heard biodegradable plastics don’t really break down. Is that true?

BioBags are certified compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute and the US Composting Council and meet with even more stringent European. In a commercial composting facility they completely decompose into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass without producing any toxic material.

Some plastic bags marketed as ‘biodegradable” are NOT compostable. Many are made of petroleum-based plastic with an additive that causes them to decay in the presence of light or air, but they leave bits of plastic debris and are unsuitable for composting.

How do I compost these bags?

When you’re done using your BioBag, place it in your green bin (for customers with curbside green waste pickup), or in the green bin at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. BioBags will decompose in 10-45 days in a municipal compost facility. They will also eventually break down in a home compost pile, but it takes a little longer (comparable to paper or leaves).

Aren’t there some foods that need to be stored in plastic? What alternatives do you recommend?

BioBags, paper bags, and reusable cloth bags are breathable, which is great for storage of some foods (such as produce that emits ethylene, a natural ripening agent) but may not be desirable for other foods. When plastic is called for, shoppers are encouraged to re-use bags they have at home.

BioBags don’t work for storing greens over the long term. If you’re not planning to make that salad tonight, we recommend washing your greens when they get home and storing them in a large container or salad spinner in your fridge. It will take some experimenting, but the greens will last longer this way. Kitchen stores (such as Sur La Table in the Ferry Building) also sell a special re-usable bag designed to keep greens fresh.

If you’re buying fresh herbs, such as basil, consider placing them in a cup of fresh water, like you would for cut flowers.

If you’re buying spinach or another green you’re planning to eat cooked, you might also consider lightly steaming or blanching it right away and adding a little to your meals over the course of the week. 

Some foods, especially fragile ones like strawberries, figs, and peaches, may not make it home intact in any kind of bag. For these we suggest bringing containers to the market to use instead of bags. A basket of strawberries fits perfectly in an old yogurt tub, and figs are well protected in an egg carton.

Is this a new law?

In 2007, San Francisco banned plastic bags from chain supermarkets and pharmacies. The law does not apply to farmers’ markets, but the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is voluntarily adopting a similar ban.

How was this decision made?

The Agriculture Policy Committee of the Board of Directors (which includes 3 market sellers) initially proposed this policy, which was then adopted by the full board. We then solicited feedback from all market sellers on their preferred strategies for implementing this policy.

If you are getting rid of plastic bags, why are some products still sold in plastic?

The decision to stop allowing plastic shopping bags in the market is the second phase of our multi-year Waste Wise initiative. In the first phase we created Waste Wise (recycling) stations for the market, distributed free reusable shopping bags, switched away from bottled water, and created displays and information to encourage Waste Wise shopping. The next phase will encourage packaging that is recyclable or returnable.

Is the FPFM the only market making the switch away from plastic bags?

We’re early to the game, but we can’t say we’re the first. The Berkeley Farmers Market did away with plastic bags this spring; the Old Monterey Market in Monterey, CA stopped distributing them last Earth Day. The Irvine market in Southern California is also bag free, and there are several other markets in the area trying the idea on for size, including the Fairfax market in Marin. 

What else can I do?

Keep bags at home, at your office, in your purse or briefcase, and in your car so you are never without one. Create a waste wise shopping kit containing tote bags, reusable produce bags, and plastic containers and keep it in your trunk. You can also throw in a portable coffee mug, reusable utensils, and a cloth napkin for lunch on the go. Not only will you be generating zero trash, but your example will inspire other shoppers.