Environmental Impacts of Plastic Bags
Based on US EPA 2012 numbers, roughly 13 billion HDPE single-use plastic bags were generated annually in California.[i] Using the CalRecycle 2009 recycling rate of 3%[ii], 390 million bags are recycled while 12.6 billion bags end up in the landfills (even after re-use) or are littered.
A single-use HDPE plastic bag uses 50% more non-renewable energy, emits 40% more GHG emissions, has 40% greater impact on solid waste, and uses 30% more fresh water than a LLDPE film reusable bag that’s been used at least 8 times.[iii]
Plastic products, including HDPE bags, do not biodegrade, but instead disintegrate into small pieces that attract surrounding toxins to contaminate the environment and our food chain.[iv]
Volunteers at the annual International Coastal Cleanup have consistently reported that plastic bags are among the five most commonly found items.[v]
Algalita research shows an overwhelming amount of plastic in the stomach contents of albatross, marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and other marine life.[vi]
Plastic bags have been documented and found in the necropsies of turtles[vii], whales[viii], and other wildlife.
Local Plastic Bag Ban Results
Reduction in per capita usage of single-use bags
A plastic bag ban with a paper bag charge can reduce total per capita bag usage by an estimated 91%, from 419 bags to just 39.[ix]
A plastic bag ban alone can reduce total per capita bag usage by a more modest 40%, from an estimated 419 bags to 250 bags.[x]
Reduction in bag distribution costs
In Los Angeles County, the bag ordinance reduced single-use plastic bag distribution by 100%, including a capping of paper bag usage.[xi]
In Alameda County, the bag ordinance reduced bag purchases by 85% in less than two years. Stores bought 50-90% fewer bags for distribution.[xii]
Portland’s plastic bag ban without a paper bag charge increased distribution costs by more than $10 per capita (from $6.70 to $17.53) due to the higher usage of paper bags that also cost more than plastic bags.
Reduction in plastic bag litter
One year after San Jose’s bag ordinance went into effect, storm drain systems have 89% fewer plastic bags while streets and creeks have 59-60% fewer plastic bags.[xiii]
In San Francisco, there was an 18% reduction in plastic bag street litter from 2007 to 2009.[xiv]
Beach cleanups show that the average number of plastic bags decreased from 65 per event to just 6, between 2009 to 2013, as more local bans in Santa Cruz/Monterey were adopted.[xv]
Change in consumer behavior (reduction in single-use plastic and paper bags)
In San Mateo County, 162% more people brought their own bags, while 130% more carried out their purchases without a bag. Roughly 26% of shoppers purchased a paper bag, with 34% purchasing and/or using a reusable bag. [xvi]
In Mountain View, stores saw an average decrease of 9% in paper bags used by shoppers during the first year of the ordinance, with some stores experience as much as 21% decrease. While 65% of the bags used prior to the ban were single-use (30% paper, 35% plastic), after the ordinance, only 10% of bags were single-use paper, with another 6% being thicker reusable plastic bags.[xvii]
More than double the amount of surveyed customers in Alameda County brought in their own bags or didn’t use a bag at all.[xviii]
Projected Benefits of a Statewide Bag Ban
Based on an NRDC survey[xix] of marine debris prevention costs to local governments, and an LA County storm drain study[xx] of plastic bag composition (by weight), local governments are spending as much as $107 million to clean up plastic bags. This is a significant potential cost savings.
Moreover, based on a 2013 survey conducted by Californians Against Waste, it is estimated that landfills spend an average of 22 cents per ton of annual capacity to pick up plastic bags that are floating around their facilities and prevent them from escaping into the environment. This represents a potential statewide cost savings of $6.6 million each year.
Based on the experience in San Jose, a statewide ban would significantly reduce (by 60% or greater) plastic bags in streets, creeks, and neighborhoods, resulting in reduced cleanup costs and maintenance.
Based on the experience in Alameda County and San Mateo County, there will be increased ‘reusable bag’ or ‘no bag’ habits by consumers.
SB 270, the California statewide bag ban, is estimated to reduce single-use plastic bag distribution by more than 6.2 billion bags. Using environmental impact assumptions from an industry funded study,[xxi] this would result in estimated reductions of:
GHG emissions by over 166,000 tons
Solid waste by nearly 30 million tons
Fossil fuel use by over 62 million tons
Gross energy use by nearly 3.2 billion megajoules
[iii] Keep California Beautiful. Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable and Single-use Plastic Bags in California. www.truereusablebags.com/pdf/lca_plastic_bags.pdf
[v]Ocean Conservancy, International Coastal Cleanup reports. http://www.oceanconservancy.org/
[ix] City of San Jose Regulated Product Metrics: Measuring Success of San Jose Bag Ordinance presentation, CRRA/SWANA, August 2014
[x] City of Portland, Promoting reusable Bags in Portland, One Year Report to Council, 10/12/12 (Reusable Bags increase 304%; Paper Bags increase 491%)
[xiii] Memo to City Council Transportation and Environment Committee from Kerrie Romanov. November 20, 2012. http://www3.sanjoseca.gov/clerk/CommitteeAgenda/TE/20121203/TE20121203_d5.pdf
[xx] LA County Draft Environmental Impact Report, Ordinances to Ban Plastic Carryout Bags. June 2, 2010. Sapphos Environmental Inc. http://dpw.lacounty.gov/epd/plasticbags/pdf/DEIR.pdf (page 2-1)