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/ A W A R E N E S S M A G A Z I N E
M A R C H / A P R I L 2 0 1 1
8 / A W A R E N E S S M A G A Z I N E
M A R C H / A P R I L 2 0 1 1
Curbing Plastic Bag Usage in California
by Kirsten James
a l i f o r n i a n s u s e a p -
proximately 19 billion
single-use plastic bags
each year. However,
less than 5% of single-use plas-
tic bags are actually recycled.
Instead, many of these plastic
bags become litter and eventu-
ally end up in our oceans as
marine debris.
Plastic bags are the most ubiq-
uitous consumer item designed
to last for minutes but persist in
our marine environment for hun-
dreds of years. This plastic pol-
lution poses a persistent threat
to marine life. Over 267 species
worldwide have been impacted
by plastic litter.
The cleanup of litter from sin-
gle-use bags puts an addition-
al strain on our economy. One
study has estimated that tax-
payer cost to subsidize the re-
cycling, collection, and disposal
of plastic and paper bags could
amount to as much as 17 cents
per bag.
In March 2007, the City of
San Francisco became the first
U.S. city to ban single-use plas-
tic bags at large supermarkets
and pharmacies. Many envi-
ronmental groups heralded this
action as a major win for the
environment, while some ques-
tioned the decision to allow the
continued distribution of single-
use paper and compostable bags
in many outlets.
It's no surprise that industry
groups such as plastic bag man-
ufacturers and the American
Chemistry Council criticized the
decision entirely and saw the
ordinance as a threat to their
San Francisco action sparked
a wave of momentum surround-
ing single-use bags, in Califor-
nia 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, Mali-
bu decided to ban plastic and
"compostable" single-use bags,
because compostable bags do
not degrade in the aquatic envi-
ronment. The City recommended
that their Council should con-
sider a fee on plastic bags in the
In addition, Malibu expanded
the definition of "store" to in-
clude all retailers, so that more
of the single-use pollution prob-
lem could be addressed. In July
2008, Manhattan Beach adopted
a nearly identical policy to Mal-
ibu's ordinance, although they
were subsequently sued by an
industry group over their envi-
ronmental 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 ordi-
nances that ban single-use plas-
tic 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 An-
geles 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 Cali-
fornia 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"
In addition, the author made
a last-minute industry conces-
sion to preempt the local mu-
nicipalities from levying fees