Bye Bye Baggie

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Michael LaRussa
Solid Waste and Recycling Program Analyst

California banned the use of plastic bags last month, when Governor Brown signed SB270 on September 30. The bags will first be phased out of supermarkets and large grocery stores starting July 2015, followed by convenience stores and pharmacies in 2016. The legislation sets a statewide standard and expands coverage beyond more than 100 various local bans encompassing an estimated one third of the state’s population.

Because plastic bags total less than a percent of the state’s total waste stream, one might say that plastic bags don’t carry much weight in terms of a waste diversion impact. Yet they do impede the recycling process itself, slowing and jamming sorting equipment at Material Recovery Facilities. Add that to their part in litter abatement costs, and California taxpayers spend an estimated $25 million annually to dispose of the bags. And less than 5% of single-use plastic bags are recycled, contributing to marine debris that harms aquatic organisms and blights a major tourism draw.

While California is the first U.S. state to enact such a ban, Hawaii previously achieved the feat in-effect through local bans by all four populated counties. While it remains to be seen which state will follow, it is clear that plastic bag legislation is covering a growing number of Americans, as major cities from Austin and Chicago to Seattle and Portland address the issue directly.

A number of countries across the globe currently enforce bag fees or outright bans. Ireland’s 2002 plastic bag levy resulted in a 94% reduction in per capita usage. Scotland will introduce a new bag fee later this month, following similar actions by Wales in 2011 and Northern Ireland in 2013. Looking ahead, Jordan’s Food and Drug Administration is contemplating a ban on plastic plates in restaurants, in addition to plastic bags used in food service.

Retail establishments which do not meet the revenue, square footage, or goods requirements for participation under California’s new law may voluntarily comply, earning them recognition by CalRecycle. This brings up a question of approach for companies in impacted sectors, wherever their location: Does such legislation present a compliance issue to manage by a deadline, or an opportunity to lead the competition with a sustainability plan that wins employee and customer support?

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