A new report from nonprofits Environment America, U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Frontier Group has found that bans on plastic bags around the U.S. have already reduced the number of bags used by billions.
By Paige Bennett
The report, “Plastic Bag Bans Work”, found that bans in three states — New Jersey, Philadelphia and Vermont — and two cities, Portland, Oregon and Santa Barbara, California, have reduced the number of single-use plastic bags used each year by around 6 billion. According to Environment America, the number of bags saved could go around the planet 42 times.
Further, the findings suggested that plastic bag bans could cut single-use plastic bag use by around 300 bags per person each year once adopted.
According to the report, over 500 municipalities in 28 states had plastic bag legislation in effect as of 2021. Additionally, 12 states have single-use plastic bag bans: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. State-wide bans in Colorado and Rhode Island just went into effect at the start of 2024.
“The bottom line is that plastic bag bans work,” Faran Savitz, a zero-waste advocate with the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, said in a statement. “Millions of Pennsylvanians have realized that it’s easy to live without plastic bags and get used to bringing a bag from home or skipping a bag when they can. That means less waste and less litter. For our children to inherit a less polluted earth, that’s exactly what we need.”
But the report did outline some grievances, including that companies have used loopholes, replacing thin, single-use plastic bags with thicker plastic bags labeled as recyclable in some places with legislation that allows replacing bags with thicker, recyclable (but still plastic) bags. For instance, the report noted that California banned plastic bags in 2016, while still allowing thick, recyclable plastic bags for a 10-cent fee. Following this legislation, the weight of plastic bags used and thrown out per person increased.
Some areas have also swapped the plastic bags for paper, which are still single-use bags, with or without a fee. When charged a minimum 10-cent-per-bag fee, shoppers in Mountain View, California saw a decline in paper bag usage. But shoppers in Philadelphia used paper bags at a 157% increased rate amid the plastic bag ban when paper bags were available for use with no fee.
“The intent of these laws isn’t to shift from a single-use bag to another single-use bag,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, a co-author of the report and a campaign director for Environment America Research and Policy Center, told Grist. “Paper has its own environmental impact.”
As such, the report authors concluded that policymakers should implement well-designed plastic bag bans that do not promote use of any single-use plastic bags, including ones labeled as recyclable, as well as charging a fee for the use of paper bags to instead encourage the use of reusable bags.
Shoppers who live in areas with existing bans can calculate the impact of their local plastic bag bans with the Bag Savings Calculator by Environment America.
Paige Bennett is a writer based in Los Angeles, who is passionate about sustainability. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Ohio University and holds a certificate in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She also specialized in sustainable agriculture while pursuing her undergraduate degree.