Eight states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont—ban the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and other businesses. Soon, New Jersey will be added to the list as its legislature recently passed a ban. Some cities (e.g. Boston, Chicago, and Seattle) have also enacted bans on plastic bags. Fifteen states, however, enacted laws to restrict local officials from enacting a ban on plastic bags to ensure that laws would be uniform throughout their states.
The states and cities that have enacted bans on plastic bags have done so despite studies showing that most plastic bags (78 percent) have a secondary life where people use them for packing lunches or disposing of pet waste or other garbage. Many of the cities and states that have banned plastic bags have overturned them temporarily during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, realizing that they were more sanitary and safer than reusable bags, which are often not washed regularly and more easily carry bacteria and viruses, according to studies on the subject.
States with Enacted Plastic Bag Legislation
Plastic Bag Ban History
Environmental groups found that it was easier to convince local towns and cities to enact plastic bag bans than state bureaucracies. By 2014, 151 California cities and counties had banned plastics. The state followed their lead and became the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. The state bill also required a 10-cent minimum charge for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags at certain locations. The ban was set to take effect on July 1, 2015, but a referendum forced the issue onto the ballot in the November 2016 election. Proposition 67 passed with 52 percent of the vote approving the plastic bag ban. In 2018, California banned plastic drinking straws and in 2019, legislators outlawed plastic hotel toiletry bottles, passing a bill modeled on an ordinance adopted by Santa Cruz.
A de facto statewide ban exists in Hawaii as all of its most populous counties prohibit non-biodegradable plastic bags at checkout, as well as paper bags containing less than 40 percent recycled material. Bans in Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii counties took effect between 2011 and 2013; Honolulu become the last major county to approve the ban in 2015.
In 2019, New York became the third state to ban plastic bags with passage of Senate Bill 1508. The law, which was supposed to go into effect on March 1, 2020, applies to most single-use plastic bags provided by grocery stores and other retailers. Bags distributed at the meat/deli counter and bulk food area are exempt, as well as newspaper bags, trash bags, garment bags, bags provided by a pharmacy for prescription drugs, and restaurant takeout bags. The law allows individual counties the option of placing a 5-cent fee on paper bags, with 2 cents going to local governments and 3 cents to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. The law was contested in court, but the ban was upheld and goes into effect on October 19, 2020.
In 2019, five other states enacted legislation to ban plastic bags—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Oregon, and Vermont. In addition to plastic bags, Vermont’s SB 113 also placed restrictions on single-use straws and polystyrene containers. In 2009, the District of Columbia enacted legislation requiring all businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge 5 cents for each carryout paper or plastic bag.
New Jersey’s Ban on Plastic Bags
In 2018, a bill was introduced to ban plastic bags in the New Jersey legislature, but Governor Phil Murphy vetoed the measure because it would have imposed a fee on plastic bags and preempted localities from passing their own bag bans despite some N.J. municipalities already banning the bags. Recently, however, New Jersey’s legislature passed a bill without a fee that Governor Murphy is expected to sign. The bill:
- Bans film plastic bags, such as those found at grocery stores, regardless of thickness. It also bans paper bags at supermarkets over 2,500 square feet in favor of reusable bags—the first state to do so.
- Bans polystyrene clamshell food containers and other products like plates, cups, food trays and utensils
- Allows plastic straws to be available only upon request at restaurants.
The ban will go into effect in 18 months.
Studies on Reusable Bags
The alternative, reusable shopping bags, are thought to harbor bacteria and viruses and could facilitate their spread in grocery stores and pharmacies. According to a study of coronaviruses, bacteria and viruses can survive in the tote bags up to nine days.
A number of studies have shown health issues traced to reusable shopping bags. In 2010, several Oregon teens and adults fell ill after attending a soccer tournament, which was traced to a reusable grocery bag that had been stored in a bathroom used before the outbreak by a person with a norovirus-like illness. Soccer players and their chaperones contracted the virus after touching the contaminated bag or eating food carried in it.
A 2011 study of grocery shoppers’ reusable bags showed large numbers of bacteria in almost all of the randomly-searched bags and coliform bacteria in half of them because the majority of shoppers said they rarely or never washed them. An analysis of an outbreak of a novel swine enteric coronavirus disease in 2013 where millions of American piglets died showed that the reusable feed totes were the most likely cause. The feed bags are often made of the same kind of material as reusable shopping bags.
States without Bans on Plastic Bags
States that have enacted laws to restrict local officials from enacting a ban on them include Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. See the map above for a complete list.
New Jersey is joining the eight states that have bans on plastic bags, and is even banning paper bags. Having grocery store patrons use reusable totes instead of plastic bags means that businesses are not allowed to determine what product is best for themselves and their customers, and forces consumers to supply their own bags, whether they want to or not. The novel coronavirus is just one of many pathogens that shoppers can spread unless they wash their reusable bags regularly, which few people bother to do. Rather than banning plastic bags, it would be more beneficial for states to re-examine their policies and figure out a better way to dispose of them or recycle them. This is especially true since people have become more conscious of potential contamination as a result of COVID-19.