NEW REPORT: California’s plastic bag regulation isn’t working as intended

Media Contacts

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – State Sens. Catherine Blakespear and Ben Allen and Asm. Rebecca Bauer-Kahan introduced bills on Tuesday to strengthen California’s ban on single-use plastic grocery bags. The bills, SB1053 and AB2236, would address California’s plastic waste crisis by closing a loophole that allows grocery stores to provide thick plastic bags for a fee. 

“Ten years ago, California attempted to ban plastic bags to stem pollution. Yet, these insidious relics persist, choking our waterways, imperiling wildlife, and despoiling our ecosystems,” said Assemblymember Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda). “AB 2236 is our battle cry against plastic pollution. With tougher rules and a push for eco-friendly alternatives, we’re ready to kick plastic bags to the curb and reclaim our environment.”

“If you have been paying attention – if you read the news at all in recent years – you know we are choking our planet with plastic waste,” said Sen. Catherine Blakespear (D-Encinitas.) “A plastic bag has an average lifespan of 12 minutes and then it is discarded, often clogging sewage drains, contaminating our drinking water and degenerating into toxic microplastics that fester in our oceans and landfills for up to 1,000 years. It’s time to improve on California’s original plastic bags ban and do it right this time by completely eliminating plastic bags from being used at grocery stores.”

“California has a proud tradition of leading the nation on environmental policy, particularly on plastic pollution. A decade ago, we were the first state to ban the thin throw-away bags, and two years ago we passed the first comprehensive single-use packaging law,” said Senator Allen, who chairs the Senate Environmental Quality Committee and is co-authoring both bills. “We learned a lot in the years between those efforts, but since its conception, our bag ban policy has fallen behind those in other states. We can and must do better. Consumers are ready to put this issue to bed and move away from plastic grocery bags altogether. We are very excited to see this finally get done this year.”

Coinciding with the bills’ introduction, CALPIRG Education Fund, the Environment California Research and Policy Center, and the Frontier Group released a new report, Plastic Bag Bans Work, that found well-designed plastic bag bans are effective at reducing waste and litter. The report points out that as opposed to more successful bag bans across the United States, California’s current statewide bag law, SB 270, contains a loophole that allows businesses to replace thin plastic bags with thicker ones at checkout for a fee. However, many people only use these allegedly “reusable,” thicker bags once before throwing them away. 

The result is that the California bag ban is not reducing litter as intended. Reports from Coastal Cleanup Days show the number of plastic bags volunteers pick up during beach clean-ups has remained relatively flat since 2015. However, because plastic carryout bags at grocery stores are now thicker, plastic bag waste by weight increased in the last few years to the highest level on record. 

“Plastic bag bans work – so it’s no wonder why the plastics industry has been figuring out ways to undermine the intent of the law,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director for CALPIRG. “Especially in the last few years, plastic bag companies have circumvented the law’s intent by mass producing thicker plastic bags that they claim are exempt from the law because they can technically be reused. The reality is that few people actually reuse them. These thick bags end up harming our environment and littering our communities just as much as the thinner ones. It’s time to finally ban plastic bags once and for all.”

It is estimated Californians generated 230,000 tons of plastic bag waste in 2021 alone, and much more by volume because plastic bags are light in weight. Plastic does not degrade and plastic film is not widely recycled, so most ends up in our landfills, in incinerators or in our environment, where it can harm wildlife and contaminate our food and drinking water. Microplastics — little particles of plastic that flake off larger pieces — have been found in every corner of the globe, including human bodies.

“Nothing we use for just a few minutes should pollute the environment for centuries,” said Laura Deehan, state director for Environment California. “We’re hopeful that this important update to our plastic bag law will reduce plastic waste, cut down on litter and build a cleaner, greener future for everyone.”