New Report: Local Plastic Bag Bans Deliver More Than Reduced Plastic Pollution and Waste

Sacramento, CA - A new analysis of the implementation of local Plastic Bag ordinances in California reveals that the benefits of the policies go well beyond reducing plastic  pollution and waste, and include reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), lower costs for consumers, and more in-state manufacturing jobs.  

While the California legislature this week continues to debate whether to extend a phase out of single-use plastic grocery bags statewide, local elected officials in California haven’t waited. As of August 18, 117 California jurisdictions have adopted policies eliminating single-use plastic carry out bags at most grocery and convenience stores.

“We no longer have to speculate on whether bag bans are good policy,” said Mark Murray, Executive Director of Californians Against Waste. “For more than 10 million Californians, life without plastic grocery bags has been a reality in their communities for a year or more, and the results are clear and consistent: reduced plastic pollution and waste, lower bag costs at grocery stores, and now we’re seeing job growth in California at facilities that produce better alternatives.”

CAW has compiled results from San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose and Alameda County, to document the impact of local bag bans. Reductions in plastic bag litter, waste and clean-up costs were as expected. However, the better than expected transition by consumers to ‘reusable bags’ and in many cases ‘no bags’, has resulted in substantially lower bag costs at grocery stores, reduced green house gas emissions, and for at least one large California bag manufacturer, substantial job growth.

Among the key findings:

Reduced Plastic Pollution and Waste:

  • San Jose reports 89% fewer bags in its storm water systems; 60% fewer bags in creeks; and 59% fewer bags on streets.
  • San Francisco reported that 18% fewer bags in street litter in 2009 (after ban) compared to 2007. SF’s Bag Ban was extended to all grocery, convenience and liquor stores in 2012.
  • Los Angeles County reported a 95% reduction in all single-use bags generated by grocery stores. 
  • Santa Cruz/Monterey weekly beach clean-up reports show, prior to local bans, volunteers collected an average of 65 plastic bags per week. Today the average is down to 6 bags per week.
  • Statewide the volume of plastic bags generated decreased 25% from 226 million pounds in 2008, to under 170 million pounds in 2012. With nearly 80 bag bans already in place, CAW is projecting that the total number of plastic bags generated in the state will fall below 10 billion for the first time since 1980. 

Lower Bag Costs at Grocery Stores:

  • San Jose ‘before and after’ surveys of customer behavior show that better than 50% of bags utilized by consumers are now ‘reusable’ bags, compared to just 3% prior to the ban. Notably, the number of consumers eschewing any type of bag has increased more than three-fold from 13% prior to the ban to 44% after the ban. Paper bag use has declined marginally.
  • Los Angeles County retailer reports showed a 95% reduction in the distribution of single use shopping bags. Prior to the ban grocery stores were spending an average of $6300 per month to provide consumers with ‘free’ grocery bags. Today that cost is down to $965 per month.
  • Los Angeles City and County require retailers to charge ’10 cents’ to consumers who need a paper bag. Consumers receiving State Food Assistance are exempt from the charge. A county survey found that the mandatory charge is generating $740 per month per store, which is just under the $965 per month cost to stores of providing paper bags.
  • Statewide California retailers are spending in excess of $313 million annually to provide customers with ‘free’ shopping bags. Based on the LA County experience, statewide implementation of the Bag Ban—including the 10 cent charge—is projected to reduce retail costs in excess of $265 million annually.

Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions:
Plastic bags are made primarily of polyethylene, which can be derived from either petroleum or natural gas. Plastic bag generation in California peaked in 2000, with an estimated 31 billion single-use plastic bags distributed by California retailers. The raw material and energy used to produce those bags is the equivalent of 129,000 gallons of oil. Over the last 7 years, a combination of local ordinances and consumer choice have cut plastic bag generation in half, and in the process, eliminated 250,000 tons of C02 equivalent. Eliminating another 7 billion plastic grocery bags will reduce GHG emissions by another 175,000 tons annually.

Phase Out of Single-Use Plastic Resulting in Increased California Manufacturing Jobs:
Earlier this month, the Paper Industry reported that Paper Bag Sales have grown 11.4% in the past year, and the Plant Manager at International Paper’s Buena Park, CA Bag Manufacturing Plant reports hiring 15-20 additional workers and increasing to shifts to 24/7 to keep up with demand. "Demand is growing, which is something I haven't said in many years," said KapStone Chairman and CEO Roger Stone. On the company's second quarter conference call on August 1st, Stone said that a main factor driving the growth is the growing number of local government bans on plastic bags.

The phase out of plastic bags will undoubtedly result in a loss of jobs at those companies that rely exclusively on the manufacture of single-use plastic grocery bags. But those companies, like South Carolina-based Hilex Poly, and Texas-based Superbag, are not in California. Vernon-based Command Packaging, and Oroville-based Roplasthave already transitioned from single-use retail bags to the manufacture of durableReusable Bags. And Huntington Park-based Crown Poly is projecting growth as it diversifies to make produce bags and trash can liners.

In addition to Command and Roplast, California has emerged as the home-base of the growing Reusable Bag sector, including Chico BagBurbank-based Earthwise, and San Francisco-based Green Bag.