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Plastic Bag Bans: California Moving Toward a Statewide Solution

Over the past few years local plastic bag ban campaigns have been gaining momentum, particularly in California and other coastal states. Environmentalists encourage the bans because the plastic bags currently used in most retail check-out stands are not easily recyclable. In addition, almost all of the 400 plastic bags used per second in California are discarded.[i] Plastic bags end up in landfills, on city streets, or in water bodies where they can take up to hundreds of years to decompose and release tiny toxic bits as they do.[ii]

In addition to being environmentally hazardous, studies have also shown plastic bags to be economically wasteful. The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) sponsored two studies that collected data in 2011 and 2012 from 95 communities located throughout California, representing over one-third of the state’s population. [iii] The studies revealed that Californian communities spend more than $428,000,000 annually to combat litter, primarily consisting of plastic bags, in order to prevent it from entering the state’s waterways.[iv]  This data did not include money spent by the state government. So far, to address this significant problem, 76 ordinances have been adopted in California, covering 105 cities or counties.[v] This includes Los Angeles, which became the largest city in the country to enforce a plastic bag ban in 2013.[vi]

The California Courts have repeatedly upheld local bans despite heated opposition by plastic companies. In 2012, San Francisco enacted an ordinance expanding existing restrictions on the use of plastic bags at check-out counters. Save the Plastic Bag Coalition (“the Coalition”), a group of plastic bag manufacturers and distributors, filed a petition for a writ of mandate seeking to invalidate the 2012 ordinance.[vii] This case went before the California Court of Appeal, First District, earlier this year.

The Coalition argued that since San Francisco has “15.9 million tourists and hundreds of thousands of commuters each day,” the 2012 ordinance will increase the use of single-use paper and compostable bags without decreasing the use of reusable bags at all because tourists and commuters will “almost never” bring their own reusable bags to the City and, even if they do, they are likely to underuse them before throwing them away which is bad for the environment.[viii] The Court held that the Coalition failed to cite any evidence to support their claim.[ix]

The Coalition also asserted that “plastic bag bans are unusual because, while they purport to protect the environment, paper and compostable bags and underused reusable bags are worse for the environment.”[x] To support this allegation, the Coalition pointed to six studies which allegedly show that the overall “life cycle” of a paper bag has a greater negative impact on the environment than the life cycle of a plastic bag.[xi] The Court held that the studies were not convincing as a “fair or accurate mechanism for measuring the impacts of a local ordinance which is clearly tailored to address the specific environmental goals of that specific locality.”[xii] The Court emphasized that the 2012 ordinance is a Checkout Bag ordinance with a goal to reduce all single-use bags in San Francisco by banning single use, noncompostable plastic check-out bags, and imposing a 10–cent bag charge on single use paper or compostable plastic bag.[xiii]

With the legal success of local plastic bag ban campaigns, and increasing public support, the State of California now looks to pass a statewide legislative ban. Earlier this year, California State Senator Alex Padilla proposed Senate Bill 270 to accomplish this goal.[xiv] The state agency CalRecycle reported the bill would end the use of 13 billion single-use plastic bags a year, 95 percent of which are not recycled.[xv] The bill included four major terms: 1) Single-use plastic bags would be banned at groceries and big box stores as of July 1, 2015,  and at pharmacies and liquor stores in 2016; 2) The stores would have to charge at least 10 cents for any type of bag they sell made of recyclable paper, reusable plastic or compostable material; 3) Starting in 2016, reusable plastic bags must contain at least 20 percent recycled material, increasing to 40 percent in 2020; 4) $2 million in incentives would be provided for retraining plastic bag factory workers and retooling companies.[xvi] After three unsuccessful attempts to pass legislation banning plastic bags, supporters of the bill say they are confident it will receive the votes needed in the Senate to pass.[xvii]

The plastics industry has been speaking out aggressively against this legislation and has spent millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers to stop efforts to pass previous bills for statewide bans in California as well as a handful of other states.[xviii] Hilex Poly, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of plastic bags, spent more than $1 million lobbying against the bill proposed in California in 2010, which ultimately failed. Hilex Poly also made political donations to every Democrat in the California Senate who voted against the plastic bag ban bill proposed in 2013.[xix] One of the main criticisms against the ban has been the jobs that would be lost. Mark Daniels, vice president of Hilex Poly, reported a ban would cost the state up to 2,000 jobs.[xx] This concern is countered by argument that the considerable savings that will be realized by retailers (who will not be supplying plastic bags) and the $2 million which will fund job training, benefitting workers and the community. [xxi]


Chelsea Thomas is a General Member on MJEAL. She can be reached at


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i] The Problem of Plastic Bags, Californians Against Waste (last visited Apr. 9, 2014),

[ii] John Roach, Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?, National Geographic News, (Sept. 2, 2003),

[iii] Barbara Healy Stickel, Waste in Our Water: The annual cost to California communities of reducing litter that pollutes our waterways, NRDC (Aug. 2013),

[iv] Id.

[v] Plastic Bags: Local Ordinances, Californians Against Waste (last visited Apr. 9, 2014),

[vi] Ian Lovett. California Endangered Species: Plastic Bags, New York Times (Feb. 25, 2014),

[vii] Save the Plastic Bag Coal. v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 166 Cal. Rptr. 3d 253, 256 (2014).

[viii] Id. at 266.

[ix] Id. at 266. 

[x] Id. at 266. 

[xi] Id. at 266-67. 

[xii] Id. at 267. 

[xiii] Id. at 267.

[xiv] Mercury News Editorial: California ban on plastic bags is way overdue, San Jose Mercury News (Feb. 3, 2014),

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Boyle, supra note xiv.

[xvii] Patrick McGreevy, Compromise bill would ban plastic bags throughout California, Los Angeles Times (Jan.23, 2014),,0,3607652.story#axzz2xjjPAuwu.

[xviii] Lovett, supra note vi.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Boyle, supra note xiv.


  1. Ken Glick (EEI)

    Banning plastic bags is not the solution as they are not only lightweight but sanitary and therefore have uses larger than whether or not they are environmentally friendly. No, the answer is requiring supermarkets to have mandatory plastic bag recycling receptacles and charging an extra, say, $.10 per bag and also giving back the $.10 per bag when people return them to the store for recycling.

  2. Cynthia Gladstone

    If they eliminate the plastic bags at the stores; I will end up having to buy the “thicker” bags for non recyclable trash instead. There is something wrong with that idea.

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