FAQ: Living Without Single-Use Plastic Bags


Currently, one in three Californians is already living in a community that has restricted the distribution of single-use plastic carryout bags.

Under Senate Bill 270, all Californians would no longer receive single-use plastic bags at grocery, drug, and convenience stores.

Here are some Frequently Asked Questions about plastic bag bans.

What stores are covered under SB 270, and when does this happen?

SB 270 covers large grocery stores (including Walmarts and Targets that sell perishable foods like milk and fruit) and drug stores (like Walgreens and Rite Aid). In its second stage, it includes convenience stores and smaller grocery stores. Restaurants and other retail stores (e.g. Home Depot, clothing stores) are not included. The law was expected to begin in stores on July 1, 2015, but is currently on hold due to the referendum.

Is this a tax on paper and reusable bags?

No. You can avoid the charge completely by refusing to buy any bags offered by the stores.

How will I carry my groceries home? I need those "free" bags.

We encourage you to bring your own bags, backpacks, etc. to avoid having to buy a bag at the store. If you forget, you can choose to go without a bag, or purchase a bag in store. Paper bags and a variety of reusable bags (including reusable plastic film bags certified for a minimum of 125 uses) will be available for purchase. Remember that single-use plastic grocery bags aren’t really free. Grocers recoup the estimated 2-5 cents they pay per plastic bag by increasing the price of groceries, meaning that even people who bring their own bags to the store are supplementing the cost of other shoppers' plastic bags. As stores begin to see more and more savings from bag bans and reduced bag distribution costs, they will likely pass these savings on in lower product prices to draw in customers from competing stores.

What if I forget my reusable bags?

Getting used to new habits takes a little time and practice. Many stores have already put up reminder signs to help customers get used to bringing in their own bags. Keep your reusable bag s in the car or invest in a small, collapsible bag that can be attached to your keychain for quick shopping trips. After you take out your groceries, hang your grocery bags by the door or your keys so you remember to take them back out to the car with you. And if you forget your reusable bags in the car while shopping, put your groceries in your cart and take them to your car where you can bag them there. 

Aren’t reusable bags worse for the environment?

Assumptions made in various studies comparing plastic, paper, and reusable bags are misleading, or are written in geographical locations that make them inapplicable to California. A closer look at the plastics industry’s own studies shows that paper bags produce at least 30% less GHG emissions over their lifecycle than plastic bags. And reusable bags made from 40% recycled polyethylene have a lower footprint than ANY single-use bag after as few as 8 uses. They use 50% less energy, have 40% less impact on GHG emissions and solid waste resources, and use 30% less water.

Why charge for paper bags? Aren't they better than plastic?

Even though paper is made from a renewable resource and is recycled at a higher rate, these single-use bags still have an environmental impact of their own. The charge serves an environmental and economic purpose. The charge reduces single-use paper bag waste and associated environmental impacts. In Portland, OR, a plastic bag ban with no charge on paper resulted in a 491% increase in paper bag use and nearly $5 million increase in the cost of bags. Meanwhile, a plastic bag ban with a 10 cent charge on paper reduced paper bag use by 30% in the first year of LA County's bag ban. The charge also offsets the stores' costs of distributing paper bags, which can be two or more times as expensive as plastic bags. LA County large stores spend an average of $11,600 a year on paper bags, and receive roughly $9,000 in bag revenue to help offset this cost and keep prices low. 

How will I pick up my pet’s waste, throw away dirty diapers, or line my small trash cans now?

Produce bags aren't covered under the ban. If you don't want to buy bags for your pet waste and other trash, look for creative reuses for the plastic bags you will likely still have around, including produce and empty bread or newspaper bags.

Will I have to spend more on trash bags?

socioeconomic impact study conducted by LA County concluded that the average resident would only spend an additional $5.72 to purchase bags. As previously noted, produce bags, as well as any other bags you may receive from stores that are not covered under the ban, may be repurposed once more to line small household trash bins. You can also keep an unlined trash bin that you just rinse out periodically, especially if you compost your food waste separately. Or, use a paper liner like somehotel chains do--newspaper works great. 

What about recycling; isn’t that a better solution?

According to a state agency report, only 3% of plastic bags were recycled in 2009. The market for recycled plastic bags is small, and there appears to be few major companies with a demand for used plastic bags. A 2012 American Chemistry Council report revealed that more than half (59%) of the recovered plastic bags and film in the US was exported to China.

Will reusable bags make me sick?

There are no credible studies making a connection between reusable bags and foodborne illness. Commonly-quoted studies, funded by the plastics industry, contain numerous flaws. One study simply shows that the same array of everyday bacteria found on our hands, clothes, and around our homes, can also be found on reusable bags. Another study never makes the connection between people who use reusable bags and people who become ill with foodborne illness. Using common sense, washing your hands, and cleaning your bags when they get dirty, virtually eliminates any risk of illness.

Do bag bans really work?

One year after LA County implemented its bag ban with a small charge on paper bags, there was a 100% reduction in the distribution of single-use plastic bags in covered stores, along with a capping of paper bag use. In San Jose, they’ve seen an 89% reduction of plastic bag litter in storm drains, a 60% reduction in creeks and a 59% reduction in city streetsAlameda County is also reporting similar successful reductions almost two years after its ban went into effect. The results speak for themselves.

Is there a law that requires me to put alcoholic beverages into carryout bags?

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control released an Industry Advisory on this. There is no California law that mandates a retailer to provide a bag for purchased alcoholic beverages.

Is there a sales tax on these bag charges?

According to the Board of Equalization, the charges should not be taxable unless they are imposed at the discretion of the retailer. The plastic grocery bag was first introduced in stores in the early 1970s. We survived without them before, and for the sake of both our environment and our economy, we can do so again.