In 2014, California state legislators passed a law banning single-use plastic bags to reduce the amount of discarded plastic and to limit emissions resulting from their production. Californians, however, are now tossing more pounds of plastic bags than before the legislation was passed. A report by the consumer advocacy group CALPIRG found the tonnage of discarded bags rose from 4.08 per 1,000 people in 2014 to 5.89 per 1,000 people in 2021—a record high. The actual tonnage of plastic waste increased by almost 50 percent.  That is because the newer bags, which typically cost 10 cents, are thicker to meet technical specifications for “reusable,” but typically are not reused. “Reusable” plastic bags are at least four times thicker than typical single-use plastic bags. Also, during the COVID lockdown, groceries, restaurant dishes and other products were delivered to consumers’ doors, often in thick plastic bags. This finding is similar to a study of New Jersey’s plastic bag ban. In California, new legislation is being proposed that would also ban the thicker plastic bags from grocery and large retail stores.

Also, in California, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law in 2022 that puts more responsibility on companies that produce the plastics. Under the law, at least 30 percent of plastic items sold, distributed or imported into California must be recyclable by January 1, 2028. By 2032, that number will increase to 65 percent. It also requires that waste from single-use plastics be reduced 25 percent by 2032 and provides CalRecycle, a state government agency,  with the authority to increase that percentage if the amount of plastic in the economy and waste stream grows. In the case of expanded polystyrene, that number needs to reach 25 percent by 2025. If that number is not hit, the hard-to-recycle foamy plastic will be banned. Recycling rates for polystyrene are in the low single digits, making it improbable that a 25 percent recycling target could be met in the three years from the signing of the bill. Language in the bill includes dates and consequences for failure, including a $50,000-per-day fine on any company or “entity” not in compliance with the law, as well as directions for how collected fees can and cannot be used.

Plastics companies will have oversight and authority over the program via a Producer Responsibility Organization, which will be made up of industry representatives. Among various duties, the group will be responsible for collecting fees from its participating organizations to pay for the program, as well as an annual $500-million fee that will be directed to a plastic pollution mitigation fund. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 35 million tons of plastics were generated in the United States in 2018 and only 8.7 percent was recycled.

Consumers Turned to Free Paper Bags Where Available

Plastic bag bans that did not place a fee on paper bags caused many customers to substitute paper bags for plastic bags. In Portland, Oregon, paper bag use increased nearly 500 percent after its plastic bag ban was put into effect without a fee on paper bags. In 2020, Oregon’s statewide ban added a paper bag fee. Philadelphia, another city with no paper bag fee as part of its single-use plastic bag ordinance, had a 157 percent increase in the proportion of customers using at least one paper bag after its ban. In contrast, Vermont’s plastic bag ban, which includes a minimum 10-cent fee on paper bags, resulted in an estimated 3.6 percent increase in paper bag use. The plastic bag ordinance in Mountain View, California, which also included a minimum 10-cent fee on paper bags, resulted in a 67 percent decline in the proportion of customers using a paper bag. While paper bags are recyclable, using new ones for every grocery trip is more wasteful than using reusable plastic bags.

New Jersey’s Plastic Bag Ban

In 2020, New Jersey passed a law banning single-use plastic and paper bags in all stores and food service businesses—a law that went into effect in May, 2022 that was cheered by  “environmental groups.” While the total number of plastic bags did go down by more than 60 percent to 894 million bags, the alternative bags ended up having a much larger carbon footprint with the state’s consumption of plastic for bags spiking by a factor of nearly three. Plastic consumption went from 53 million pounds of plastic before the ban to 151 million pounds following the ban. Most of New Jersey’s stores switched to heavier, reusable shopping bags made with non-woven polypropylene, which uses over 15 times more plastic and generates more than five times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions during production per bag than polyethylene plastic bags. Further, the alternative bags were not widely recycled and do not typically contain any post-consumer recycled materials. Greenhouse gas emissions rose 500 percent compared to the old bags as consumers shelled out money for reusable bags at a time when Bidenomics was already pressuring grocery budgets.


States and localities are finding that the single-use plastic bag ban is back-firing on them as both plastic waste and emissions from bag use has gone up with the ban. While reusable bags are available, people are disposing of them in many cases as they did with single-use plastic bags, increasing plastic waste as more plastic goes into their manufacture to create their thickness, and increasing the emissions from their production. States and localities that allowed free paper bags in lieu of the plastic bags found their use to also increase, also resulting in more waste, as they were destroyed often after a single use. The plastic bag ban shows what can occur when politicians rush into laws and regulations without the proper research to see whether their goals will be attained.

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