The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Plastic Bag Bans

Plastic Bag Bans

Shoppers and Trends

June 24, 2012

Last month, Los Angeles became the largest city in the nation to approve a ban on plastic bags at supermarkets. Over the next several months, an estimated 7,500 Los Angeles stores will phase out plastic bags, requiring shoppers to bring in reusable bags or purchase paper bags for 10 cents each. The current ban is specific to groceries and does not yet apply to other retailers, like the Gap or Target.

According to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, each year, approximately 6 billion plastic carryout bags are consumed in Los Angeles County. This is equivalent to 600 bags per person per year. If tied together, these bags would form a string long enough to reach the moon and back, five times. Nationally, 380 billion plastic bags are consumed; worldwide between 500 billion and 1 trillion. 

Daniel Jacobson, Legislative Director for Environment California, a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization, says that the push to ban plastic bags in California originated with the discovery of some disturbing statistics. Californians throw away 123,000 tons of plastic bags each year, and many of these end up as litter in our ocean. Today, there are 100-million tons of trash in the North Pacific Gyre. In some parts of the Pacific, plastic outweighs plankton 6 to 1.

“We have been and are still extremely concerned about the amount of plastic pollution ending up in our oceans. Studies are finding sea animals with bellies full of plastic, like sea turtles who think they are jellyfish, and beach clean ups find tons of plastic bags. We may not even be able to clean up all the plastic in the ocean because it breaks down into smaller pieces. Plastic bags are costing irreparable damage from an environmental perspective – and we have been using them at an unsustainable rate,” says Jacobson.

Plastic bag use is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s hard to imagine, but just 30 years ago, there were no plastic bags used at grocery stores. But plastic is cheaper to produce than paper, and when industry developed the ability to mass produce plastic, grocers switched to the cheaper alternative. Now, retailers will be encouraged to invest in recyclable paper bags. Shoppers can pay a small fee for these bags or bring their own.

The ban won’t cost retailers anything. After all, right now they give their bags away for free. However, Jacobson says that grocers may decide to invest in producing reusable bags that shoppers will want to use as there may be a marketing advantage to having shoppers carry their store-specific bag. And the bag tax for paper bags isn’t technically new. Consumers have been paying for bags for years – the cost has simply been added into the cost of the groceries purchased. Now consumers will take on the small fee themselves.

“We have found that this small fee really encourages shoppers to bring their own bags and participate in the movement away from plastic bag use,” says Jacobson. “When you go to the store, you wouldn’t leave your wallet in the car. Let’s make reusable bags part of that same equation. It’s about retraining our shopping habits.”

Not everyone is on board the anti-plastic bag movement. Some critics say that the effort to remove all plastic bags from our marketplace is unrealistic, and could potentially hurt the economy. In fact, Crown Poly workers protested outside of the Los Angeles City Council meeting that was voting on the ban, saying that they would indeed lose their jobs. Still, Jacobson sees this situation as more of an opportunity to create different, and potentially better, types of jobs.

“The economy is an important issue and we don’t want to diminish it. That’s why we need to do everything we can do to stimulate jobs. The market for reusable bags will do just that, and companies like Green Vets, Homeboy Industries and Earthwise are great examples of this. As we move into a reusable bag society, we hope to see companies like Crown Poly, Dupont, Chevron and Exxon create similar green collar jobs,” says Jacobson.

Los Angeles retailers will undergo a six-month education program about the transition away from plastic bags, and they will start passing this information along to their shoppers when they are ready. Grocers will then need to go through their inventory and ship their remaining bags to their stores in other areas that can still use them, and phase in recyclable paper bags.

Bans have already been in place in places like San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Corpus Christie and parts of coastal North Carolina. Jacobson says that the coastal cities were the first to put the bans in place, but inland cities, like Sacramento, Davis and Riverside are exploring plastic bag ban options too. Incredibly, one-third of the state of California is now living in a plastic bag-free community.

“The interesting thing about all of these ordinances is that they are being pursued by a couple of moms, a dad and a city council member. As a local environmental group, we try to provide as much support as we can along the way,” adds Jacobson.