The Plastic Bag Ban in a Nutshell

The Bag Ban in California

Californians have the opportunity to vote for a statewide ban on plastic bags this November. It would help keep literally 13 billion of these petroleum-based convenience items out of the ocean annually.

Hundreds of cities have already implemented these bans. Here’s what works and what doesn’t.

The NRDC writes that voters should be careful and choose Prop 67 instead of the decoy Prop 65 when voting this November. They report that “the measure would eliminate the thin polyethylene bags from a whole stretch of large stores but allow retailers and grocers to sell recycled-content paper bags at a minimum price of 10 cents each. Shoppers using food stamps would be exempt from the 10-cent charge.”

The key here is that the stores are selling the bags. They are distributing bags to customers for a price and keeping the profits of those sales. The fee is not a tax that goes to government. This is important because it makes the whole idea more politically palatable to those who’ve bought into Reagan’s government-bashing philosophy.

The government is just telling stores that they can’t distribute such a harmful product for free. Free distribution takes away those powerful market mechanisms that are supposed to signal to us that we should regulate our demand in relation to supply. Petroleum is in limited supply, so petroleum-based products should not be free. Ocean clean-up isn’t cheap either.

Why Each Ban Needs a Fee

We are so paralyzed by this fear of taxes that it hampers our ability to implement anything even resembling a tax. Chicago’s ban with no fee recently went into effect for stores smaller than 10,000 square feet and has been in effect for larger stores for a year.

Unfortunately, Chicago’s aldermen fell into the trap of listening to the woes of the plastics industry instead of doing what needs to be done. They banned single-use bags but allowed free distribution of thicker “re-usable” bags.

This has made the problem worse. Stores are paying more for thicker bags, giving out more free plastic than before, and the number of bags used has not declined. In places like DC or Seattle, however, have just $0.05 fees on all paper and plastic bags and have cut single-use bag use by over 50%.

plastic bag stuck in treeConsumers need a fee to signal to them that those bags they are mindlessly accepting have some value and are not free to make or dispose of. Retailers don’t want to be the bad guys who charge a fee for bags when their competitors do not, so they rely on government to level the playing field.

For more information on other states and municipalities, check out In addition to a handy map, it details all of the laws passed in each state. For example, in Massachusetts, many towns have enacted plastic bag bans that go into effect in 2017 or 2018.

State legislators are considering a statewide ban, and they’re on the right track! $0.10 fees on all bags until Aug. 1, 2018, at which point single-use bags will also be banned. Fees are retained by the stores.

No matter where we live, we can all do our part to vote, call our legislators, or educate our friends and family about this issue. The ocean thanks you!

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