One Year Later: Voter Approval of Bag Ban Results in Substantially Reduced Plastic Bag Litter and Waste

SACRAMENTO – One year after Californians voted to enact a state law banning plastic shopping bags--the first state in the nation to do so—state and local officials report a substantial drop in plastic bag litter and waste.

“One year ago, California voters approved Proposition 67 and boldly reaffirmed their support for the environment. Now, California is quickly moving past the era of throw-away plastic bags,” said California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the author of Senate Bill 270, the state law banning single use plastic bags. “When I took on the problem of plastic bag pollution four years ago, California retailers were distributing more than 19 billion single-use plastic bags every year. Today, that number is zero. Once again California is leading the way, creating cleaner communities for all.”

Litter data from the Coastal Clean-up Day, held annually in September, shows a substantial decrease in plastic grocery bag litter, corresponding with the implementation of local and ultimately the statewide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags.
“For decades, plastic bags were one of the most common items collected during the annual California coastal cleanup,” said John Laird, California Secretary for Natural Resources. “This year, as California continues to transition to reusable bags, we are seeing a substantial decline in plastic grocery bag litter on beaches, rivers and parkways.”

As recently as 2010, volunteers documented more than 65,000 plastic bags littered along California beaches and rivers during the annual clean up, accounting for 7.4% of all items littered, 3rd most prolific behind just cigarette butts and fast food packaging.

By the 2016 clean-up, with better than 40 percent of the state covered by local bag bans, plastic grocery bag litter had dropped by 66%, accounting for less than 2% of items littered.

Final results from the September 2017 clean-up have not yet been completely tallied, but preliminary data reported by hundreds of clean-up crews covering more than 1800 miles across the state shows that plastic grocery bag litter had dropped by 72% compared to 2010, and accounts for less than 1.5% of items littered.

Prior to the enactment of SB 270 (Padilla), the Statewide ban, Californian retailers were distributing an estimated 13.8 billion plastic bags each year.

A 2014 waste characterization study by CalRecycle found that 157,395 tons of Plastic grocery and merchandise bags were disposed in the state. Despite multiple attempts at recycling, CalRecycle reports that recycling remained less than 5 percent.
Plastic is non-biodegradable and plastic bags are made from polyethylene, derived from either natural gas or petroleum. The annual US production of plastic shopping bags uses the equivalent of 1.2 million barrels of oil.

“California’s statewide plastic bag ban has elevated public awareness about the broader problem of ocean plastic pollution – and sparked public interest in taking action to reduce demand for many other kinds of single-use plastic,” said Aimee David, director of ocean conservation policy strategies for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Proposition 67, the 2016 referendum on the state law (Senate Bill 270) passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2014, passing 53.3 to 46.7 percent. The law had been challenged by the out-of-state plastic bag industry, which spent more than $6 million to repeal it.

“The 2016 election results demonstrated to policy makers that consumers strongly support the elimination of single-use plastic bags,” said Mark Murray, Executive Director of Californians Against Waste. “In the 12 California Counties that have already banned plastic bags, support was most overwhelming, with better than 66% of voters saying yes to Prop 67, and an end to polluting plastic shopping bags.”

"California’s plastic bag ban is proving to be a victory for our oceans and marine life, and for communities all over California," said Linda Escalante, Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The phase out of these plastic bags is an important step in reducing a significant and damaging source of plastic pollution that is costing California communities more than $428 million in cleanup costs.”

“The immediate success of California’s plastic bag ban has demonstrated to policy makers and the public that we don’t have to accept plastic pollution as inevitable,’ said Dan Jacobson, State Director of Environment California. “Single-use plastic packaging that cannot be reduced or recycled will be prime targets for product bans.”