By Jennifer Schultz
Plastic bags are the most common consumer item on the planet—and one of the more controversial.
With more than 1 trillion used each year—100 billion by American shoppers—the bags are a leading source of pollution worldwide.
Over the past decade, governments at every level, from towns and cities, to states and entire countries, have passed legislation to restrict the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and other retail stores. In doing so, governments have grappled over the best policy approach, considering bans, taxes, and recycling programs as a means to address the problem.
Last month, California became the first state to pass legislation (SB 270) imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. Governor Jerry Brown said in a recent debate that he will “probably sign” the bill.
While convenient for consumers, plastic bags raise environmental and economic concerns from the point of creation to eventual disposal. The production of plastic bags requires large quantities of oil and natural gas and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
The lightweight nature of the bags also makes disposal particularly difficult: wind currents can easily lift bags from the tops of landfills and trash bins, resulting in urban spaces, landscapes and waterways littered with bags. Wind and water currents also carry bags to the ocean, where they have serious impacts on marine life and the aquatic environment.
Perhaps the most striking example of plastic pollution lies in large, swirling expanses of the ocean known as “gyres” where as much as 1.6 billion pounds of plastic end up each year. Ultimately, the life expectancy of a single plastic bag is estimated at more than 1,000 years.
While some jurisdictions have opted for an outright ban, others have instituted a tax, encouraged voluntary measures, or decided on some combination of the three. San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in 2007.
Two years later, Washington, D.C., established a 5-cent-per-bag tax on disposable carryout bags—paper and plastic—provided by grocery stores, drug stores, liquor stores, restaurants and food vendors. Results of that tax are a bit mixed, although it does seem to be leading to a reduction in bags on the streets of our Capital City.
Opponents of bans and taxes argue that lawmakers should focus on promoting plastic bag recycling and commitments from individual stores. They also note that plastic bags are popular with consumers and can be recycled into pipes, storage containers, flower pots and other products. Notably, California’s law does require stores to provide a reusable grocery bag or a recycled paper bag at no cost to WIC recipients.
State legislatures have been debating strategies to reduce the number of plastic carryout bags provided by retail stores. Some states are targeting paper bags as well. California’s bill was sent to the governor for signature on Aug. 29, 2014.
The legislation prohibits certain large stores, as of July 1, 2015, from providing a single-use plastic carryout bag to a customer, with specified exceptions. In addition to the ban, a 10-cent minimum fee will be charged for distribution of approved recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags in certain jurisdictions. After July 1, 2016, these prohibitions and requirements will take effect for many smaller stores as well. The ban does not apply to handle-less plastic bags used to protect meat or produce from damaging or contaminating other purchased items.
Revenue will be retained by the store to offset costs of complying with the law. In response to concerns that this ban will harm industry, the bill extends $2 million in loans to plastic bag manufacturers to ease the transition toward production of reusable bags.
In addition to California, a virtual statewide ban exists in Hawaii as all four populated counties in the state prohibit non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout, as well as paper bags containing less than 40 percent recycled material. For more information on state laws and legislation regarding single-use bags, visit NCSL’s webpage on the topic.
Legislation is still pending in statehouses in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico that would also ban single-use bags. Four states—Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania—are also considering a fee or tax on the distribution of bags which a shopper will have to pay, either directly or indirectly, with proposed fees ranging from 1 cent to 15 cents per bag. Similar legislation failed this year in Hawaii, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
Jennifer Schultz is a research analyst in NCSL's Environment, Energy and Transportation program.