California's war on plastic bag use appears to have failed

It was a decade ago when California became the first state in the country to ban single-use plastic bags, ushering in a wave of anti-plastic legislation from coast to coast.

But in the years after California apparently kicked the plastic shopping bag habit, materials recovery facilities and environmental activists noticed a peculiar trend: Plastic bag waste by weight was rising to unprecedented levels. .

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According to a report by consumer advocacy group CALPIRG, 157,385 tons of plastic bag waste were discarded in California the year the law was passed. However, by 2022, the tonnage of discarded plastic bags had skyrocketed to 231,072, an increase of 47%. Even taking into account an increase in population, the figure increased from 4.08 tons per 1,000 people in 2014 to 5.89 tons per 1,000 people in 2022.

It turns out that the problem was a section of the law that allowed grocery stores and large retailers to provide thicker, heavier plastic bags to customers for the price of ten cents.

“It was a conscious decision to create a path for a type of reusable bag that barely existed,” said Mark Murray, director of Californians Against Waste, an environmental organization. “It was just emerging on the market, but it turned out that it was made by a couple of companies in California… and the manufacturers claimed they could certify that they were reusable.”

He said the bags were made from 20% recyclable material and manufacturers said they could be recycled at the end of their “useful life”. …So we said, okay, okay. “We are going to include those specific criteria in the law.”

“That experiment failed,” Murray said.

“It was a huge gap,” said Mark Gold, director of Water Scarcity Solutions and Environmental Health at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who worked on the original legislation (SB 270) while working at the organization Heal the Bay.

These “reusable” bags are made from a material known as HDPE, which is thicker and heavier than the LDPE plastic bags of yesteryear. And while both materials can be recycled (and in commercial and agricultural settings often are), they are generally not recycled in residential and consumer settings, Murray said.

“Basically what happened is that the plastic bag companies invented these thicker plastic bags that technically meet the definition of reusable, but clearly they are not reusable and they do not look like reusable bags and they simply circumvent the intent of the law.” said Jenn Engstrom, CALPIRG state representative. director.

Now, California lawmakers hope to right that wrong by passing a law that closes that loophole and bans thick plastic bags offered at checkouts.

“The idea is to go back and redefine reusable bags as a way to get rid of all those setbacks that we now see so often in grocery stores,” Engstrom said.

Thick plastic bags “are not what consumers demanded when they voted overwhelmingly for California's bag ban at the polls when the policy was challenged,” Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) recently told reporters. ) in reference to Proposition 67, a 2016 proposed ballot measure that would have overturned the 2014 law.

“Californians want less plastic, not more.”

The proposed legislation was co-authored by Allen, Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) and Sen. Catherine Blakespear (D-Encinitas).

Research has shown that the plastic problem is increasing.

Plastic has been found everywhere scientists have looked: from the deepest ocean trenches to the highest alpine peaks. Petroleum-based plastics do not biodegrade. Over time, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces (known as microplastics, microfibers, and nanoplastics) and have been found in household dust, drinking water, and human tissues and blood.

These small pieces of plastic also contain chemicals and heavy metals that are known to cause disease.

“If you've been paying attention and reading the news, looking around you, you realize that we are literally choking our planet with plastic waste,” Blakespear said at the press conference. He noted that 5 billion bags are used worldwide each year and the average use time per bag is 12 minutes.

Part of the problem has to do with the promises product manufacturers made about recycling and the harsh realities of collecting and reusing plastic. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that only 8.7% of all plastics were recycled.

In 2022, California Atty. General Rob Bonta opened an investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries for their alleged role in causing and exacerbating a global plastic waste pollution crisis, and for misleading the public into thinking recycling could solve the plastic waste problem. .

Allen and Engstrom said states like New Jersey and New York followed California's decision to ban plastic bags, but learned from California's mistake and made laws to close the loophole.

“There's a virtuous circle of dialogue among those states that want to do the right thing, where we build on each other's work and almost challenge each other” to write effective, all-encompassing laws, Allen said.

He also said he anticipates a fairly clear path for this legislation as it moves through the Assembly and Senate, largely because it has the support of the California Grocers Assn.

Daniel Conway, vice president of government relations for the association, described the original legislation banning plastic bags as “revolutionary,” but “at the same time, I think, like most good laws, you have to take a look and adapt.” to the changes in the world. that we live”.

Gold was not surprised that the first law did not work.

“This is what happens when you try to fight plastic, one item at a time,” he said. “It's just not effective in stopping the plastic problem.”

He said a much better approach was SB 54, a bill that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in 2022.

That sweeping law seeks to phase out single-use plastics through a policy concept known as Extended Producer Responsibility, which shifts responsibility for waste from consumers, towns and cities to companies that make products with environmental impacts.

The law also gives plastics companies broad oversight and authority in terms of program management, execution and reporting, through a Producer Responsibility Organization, which will be made up of industry representatives.

The legislation requires that by January 1, 2028, at least 30% of plastic items sold, distributed or imported into the state be recyclable. By 2032, that figure will increase to 65%. It also calls for a 25% reduction in single-use plastic waste by 2032 and gives CalRecycle the authority to increase that percentage if the amount of plastic in the economy and the waste stream grows.

In the case of expanded polystyrene, that figure must reach 25% by 2025. If that figure is not reached, the ubiquitous foam plastic, which is difficult to recycle, will be banned.

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