Californians use approximately 19 billion single-use plastic bags each year. However, less than 5% of single-use plastic bags are actually recycled. Instead, many of these plastic bags become litter and eventually end up in our oceans as marine debris.
In March 2007, the City of San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban single-use plastic bags at large supermarkets and pharmacies. Many environmental groups heralded this action as a major win for the environment, while some questioned the decision to allow the continued distribution of single-use paper and compostable bags in many outlets.
Plastic bags are the most ubiquitous consumer item designed to last for minutes but persist in our marine environment for hundreds of years. This plastic pollution poses a persistent threat to marine life. Over 267 species worldwide have been impacted by plastic litter.
The cleanup of litter from single-use bags puts an additional strain on our economy. One study has estimated that taxpayer cost to subsidize the recycling, collection, and disposal of plastic and paper bags could amount to as much as 17 cents per bag.
It’s no surprise that industry groups such as plastic bag manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council criticized the decision entirely and saw the ordinance as a threat to their livelihood.
San Francisco action sparked a wave of momentum surrounding single-use bags, in California and beyond. Many California communities quickly became motivated to follow suit. At the same time, industry opposition began to coalesce.
The City of Malibu adopted a policy in May 2008. Learning from some of the weaknesses in the San Francisco policy, Malibu decided to ban plastic and “compostable” single-use bags, because compostable bags do not degrade in the aquatic environment. The City recommended that their Council should consider a fee on plastic bags in the future.
In addition, Malibu expanded the definition of “store” to include all retailers, so that more of the single-use pollution problem could be addressed. In July 2008, Manhattan Beach adopted a nearly identical policy to Malibu’s ordinance, although they were subsequently sued by an industry group over their environmental review. Palo Alto and Fairfax moved forward on bans.
More recently Los Angeles County, City of San Jose, Marin County and the City of Santa Monica moved forward ordinances that ban single-use plastic bags and place a charge on recycled paper bags. Los Angeles County adopted a Countywide Environmental Impact Report for their ordinance.
It is designed to be used by any of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County that are interested in adopting similar ordinances and will hopefully streamline the process for these cities to move forward on policies.
Since 2005, the introduction of single-use bag legislation has proceeded steadily in the California legislature. In 2006, AB 2449 (Levine) was signed into law. This law created an in-store recycling program for collecting and recycling plastic “carry out” bags.
In addition, the author made a last-minute industry concession to preempt the local municipalities from levying fees on plastic single-use bags. Since the implementation of this law in 2007, there has not been a marked increase in the plastic-bag recycling rate.
Several industry-backed bills over the past few years have also focused on voluntary approaches and recycling — policies shown to be insufficient for addressing the pollution problem created by single-use bags.
Several bills in recent years have proposed placing a charge on single-use plastic, paper, and compostable bags with the majority of funds collected going back to local governments for single-use bag pollution abatement (AB 2869 [Levine]; AB 68 [Brownley]; AB 87 [Davis]).
Not only have fee policies worked well to reduce bag usage in countries such as Ireland, but funds generated can also help budget-strapped communities. However, in part due to the economic downturn in recent years, the California legislature has not been willing to pass a bag bill that places a charge on the consumer.
Given the legislature’s negative record on bag legislation charging consumers, this legislative session has marked a shift in proposed single-use bag policy. AB 1998 (Brownley) proposed a ban on single-use plastic and compostable bags by January 1, 2012, and an at-cost charge on high-recycled content paper bags. Many environmental groups found this policy preferable to fees because a straight ban on plastic would result in fewer bags in the environment.
AB 1998 passed out of the state Assembly with a vote of 42-27. Notwithstanding a unique and broad coalition of supporters including the California Grocers Association, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, local governments, environmental groups and the Governor, this bill failed to pass the state Senate. The American Chemistry Council poured millions into an anti- AB 1998 advertisement campaign, high-powered lobbyists and senate donations. This effort was likely a big contributor to the bill’s demise.
The Future of Bags
As discussed above, there is much momentum on the issue of single-use bags at the state and local levels. Ideally, California will have a statewide policy that bans plastic and compostable single-use bags, and bans or places a charge on paper bags at all large supermarkets, pharmacies, and convenience stores in the near future.
This would lead to the greatest reduction in single-use bag pollution and would drive consumers toward reusable bags, the environmentally-preferable alternative. As a result of such a policy, municipalities would have fewer cleanup costs, and stores would not need to imbed the price of “free” bags in the cost of consumer products.
Despite slow progress at the state level, it is essential for policy to move forward at the local level — not only to create positive environmental change but also to drive state action in the future. Many local governments were waiting to hear the results of AB 1998 before moving forward with their own policies.
In the short time since the end of the legislative session, local governments are already starting to take action on plastic bags. Hopefully the momentum at the local level in the coming months and the possible reality of a “patchwork” of plastic bag policies throughout the state will send a strong message to the legislature that a statewide approach is needed.
Kirsten James is the Water Quality Director at Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica-based environmental group.
AB 68 (Brownley). 2010.
AB 87 (Davis). 2010.
AB 2869 (Levine). 2006.
California Coastal Commission. 2006. Eliminating land-based discharges of marine debris in California: A plan of action from the plastic debris project.
California Department of Resources Recovery and Recycling. n.d. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: 2005 characterization of municipal solid waste, Table 7. http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/LGCentral/Basics/PlasticBag.htm.
City of San Francisco Ordinance 81-07, Plastic Bag Reduction. 2007.
City of San Francisco Dept of the Environment, Bag Cost Analysis. Nov.18, 2004.
City of Malibu Ordinance No. 323. 2008.
City of Manhattan Beach Ordinance No. 2115. 2008.
Laist, D. W. 1997. Impacts of marine debris: Entanglement of marine life in marine debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records. In Marine debris—Sources, impacts, and solutions, ed. J. M. Coe and D. B. Rogers, 99–139. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. 2007. An overview of carryout bags in Los Angeles County.
Superior Court of California. 2009. Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach.
U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Public and Constituent Affairs. 1999. Turning to the sea: America’s ocean future. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.