Regulatory prospects offer mixed bag across U.S. for plastic sacks

Lauren Melucci

January 30, 2014

5 Min Read
Regulatory prospects offer mixed bag across U.S. for plastic sacks

According to the U.S. House of Representatives, it is estimated that residents of the U.S. use nearly 100 million plastic bags per year-yet only 0.6 percent are recycled. The rest end up in the country's landfills, neighborhoods and oceans, prompting a growing interest among environmentalists, community groups and elected officials to discourage their use through legal measures. 297623-Bags.jpg


When educational outreach failed to dramatically curb plastic bag use, stakeholders tired of blowing litter, clogged storm drains and the environmental impact of plastic's 1,000-year life span began to get serious about driving consumer preference from plastic bags to reusable ones. In 2007, San Francisco became the first city to pass a plastic bag ban. Since then, an increasing number of bills have made their way to local and state legislators.

Bag bill drivers

Behind the laws are a variety of drivers, from preserving waterways and communities to safeguarding wildlife-and, in some cases, local waste reduction goals. Regardless of their origin, the bills typically take one of three approaches:

Bans: These bills ban petroleum-based, and sometimes compostable, plastic bags. Often, the bills include design requirements for acceptable alternatives, such as paper and reusable bags.

Fees: Some legislation charges customers-typically between five and 25 cents-for requesting a plastic bag, with the money collected often used to fund environmental initiatives. A newer trend is to charge for paper bags where plastic ones are banned.

In-store bag recycling requirements: Other bills require stores of a certain size to provide bins for customers to return plastic bags and/or credit shoppers for using their own reusable bags.

Due to concerns on both coasts about the impact on waterways, oceans and marine life, the bulk of plastic bans has been in states such as North Carolina, Maryland, D.C., New York, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and, most notably, California.

In 2010, a statewide plastic bag ban bill failed to pass in California. But its defeat didn't signal the end of similar legislation. On both state and local levels, efforts to change bag use behavior continue.

• Last year, Santa Monica passed one of the most aggressive bag laws in the state, banning all grocery stores, pharmacies and retailers from distributing plastic bags, with exceptions for restaurants selling food and drink for take-out.

• San Jose's bill, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2012, bans all retailers from using plastic bags and, for the first two years, allows paper bags to be sold under the ordinance at 10 cents each, with the cost rising to a minimum of 25 cents thereafter.

• A proposal now before the California Assembly would prohibit supermarkets in the state from distributing plastic carryout bags to customers unless the bags display the phrase, "Please Recycle This Bag," on both the front and back panels.

• The city of San Francisco expanded its ban of plastic bags-which originally only applied to large supermarkets and chain pharmacies-to all retailers citywide.

• In Los Angeles County, a measure before the city council would restrict point-of-sale plastic and paper carryout bags. Unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County have been under a similar ban since 2010, when plastic carryout bags were prohibited and recycled paper bags began to incur a fee in supermarkets, large retail pharmacies, liquor stores and food marts.

Challenges abound

Despite the proliferation of plastic bag proposals, not all bills get passed. While some consumers are vocal about their concerns that the bans are both inconvenient and expensive, plastic industry lobbyists and organizations mount more organized challenges to block their passage. From claims that reusable bags pose health risks and cost Americans more to purchase than disposable alternatives, to arguments that the bills jeopardize a sizable plastic bag manufacturing industry, almost every piece of legislation is met with some resistance.

For example, in California this March, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition challenged San Francisco's Board of Supervisors decision to expand the city's plastic bag ban to cover most businesses. The coalition argued that San Francisco violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by not performing a full Environmental Impact Review (EIR) before enacting the ban. However, in 2011, the California Supreme Court upheld Manhattan Beach's bag ban, ruling that the city could ban retailers from using plastic bags without going through a lengthy environmental study on the increased use of paper bags.

Plastic bag legislation shows no signs of slowing down. And as the number of bills increases, so does their variety-both within one state and across borders.

For example, some plastic bag bans apply to every business, most impact grocery stores, and others exclude restaurants. Different laws define plastic carryout bags differently, as well as compostable and recyclable ones. And most communities have unique design requirements for plastic bag alternatives that cite minimum levels of post-consumer recycled content and labeling, as well as the costs for them at checkout.

To stay abreast of the laws to comply with the necessary requirements in all jurisdictions, follow these three steps:

1. Establish a process for tracking the scope, compliance dates and requirements of regulatory proposals and laws regarding plastic bags in all jurisdictions in which you distribute bags.

2. Take an inventory of your existing bag stock for adherence to passed and proposed requirements for design, labeling, sourcing and recycled content of permitted bags.

3. If you sell reusable bags, be sure they meet restrictions under applicable legislation, such as: no heavy metals content, must be disinfectable/machine washable, thickness minimums and handle requirements.

Lauren Melucci, project manager at EPI, tracks developments in plastic bag legislation. Reach her at 401-423-2225 or [email protected].

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