'Got Your Bags?' Campaign Kicks Off

Last modified on November 9, 2009 by Site Administrator

California state law (AB 2449) requires grocery stores and pharmacies with more than 10,000 square feet of retail space to provide bins for the collection and recycling of plastic shopping bags. Yet independent studies have concluded that public awareness of the legislation remains low and consumers often have a hard time finding recycling bins or are unaware that they exist.

In response, the state launched the 'Got your Bags?' program as part of its larger 'Keep California Beautiful' campaign. Initially, the "Got Your Bags?" program emerged as a grassroots effort between the Mariposa County Public Works Department (MCPWD) and the Mariposa County Unified School District. MCPWD developed and stenciled a "Got your Bags?" slogan and logo on local supermarket parking lots, which was incorporated into a recycling lesson for summer school students.

Christine Flowers-Ewing, Executive Director of Keep California Beautiful, stated "Our goal with this campaign is to give consumers that extra reminder so they translate good intentions into action."

Description of Assembly Bill 87 - Proposed in January 2009
AB 87/SB 531 was introduced by Mike Davis (D) on January 5, 2009. Existing law requires retailers to provide an in-store recycling bin, maintain records for collection transport, and recycling of plastic carryout bags, and requires plastic bag manufacturers develop educational materials to encourage reduce, reuse, and recycle principles. If passed, the new bill would impose a 25 cent fee for every single-use carryout bag distributed to shoppers. The tax would apply to all paper, plastic, and biodegradable bags and would go into effect on July 1, 2010. A Bag Pollution Fund would be established in the state treasury and proceeds would fund administrative costs, environmental programs, and payments to cities and counties to reduce bag litter.

Description of Assembly Bill 68 - Proposed in December 2008
AB 68 was introduced by Assemblymember Julia Brownley in December 2008. This legislation would also impose a 25 cent fee on all single-use carryout bags provided to shoppers. The State Board of Equalization would administer collection fees and collected funds would go to programs related to single-use carryout bags and reusable bag giveaway programs.

Description of Assembly Bill 2058 - Proposed in February 2008
On February 19, 2008, Lloyd Levine introduced Assembly Bill 2058, which initially aimed to improve the infrastructure to collect and recycle bags from statewide grocery and retail stores. The bill has been amended on 3/28, 5/5, 5/23 and 6/30.

The March 28th version of AB 2058 introduced a 15 cent fee per bag on all disposable plastic bags. The per-bag fee was raised to 25 cents on May 5th. By passing this legislation, California became the first state to require large grocery and retail stores to establish in-store recycling programs which provide customers with the opportunity to return clean plastic carryout bags to that store.

On August 7th, the California Senate Appropriations Committee failed to pass the latest version of AB 2058, which was reintroduced on June 30th. This update would prohibit a store from providing plastic carryout bags to customers on and after July 1, 2011 unless the store demonstrates an increased diversion rate of 70% in the number of plastic carryout bags provided by the store during a specified period.

Opposition to Bag Tax Legislation
The Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council estimates that the latest version of AB 2058 would have placed a $4.75 billion tax on grocery shoppers, which translates to upwards of $400 a year to the average family's grocery bill. Critics of a bag fee claim:

"This tax would have inevitably hurt the people who can least afford it, especially those shoppers who walk or take public transportation to the grocery store."

A bag tax is also particularly upsetting for small business owners that deal with volumnous amounts of small-dollar sales transactions. The majority of California residents aren't thrilled about the tax either. According to a statewide survey of 700 registered voters conducted by the American Chemistry Council between June 28th and July 2nd of last year, 58% opposed the bag fee, 38% supported it, and 4% didn't know. These numbers are nearly identical to a Seattle survey conducted by Seattle Public Utilies in December 2007.

As the economy continues to worsen, some say now is not the time for additional taxes. Others believe there is no convenient time for preserving the environment and action is imperative. And yet another camp wants bag tax proceeds to fund projects that need it more than ever in light of California's $42 billion budget deficit. Regardless of the motives behind the issue, no state has imposed a statewide fee or ban yet. For now, it remains a regionalized matter left up to individual cities and counties.

The following takes a closer look at places that have adopted some sort of legislation on bags:

San Francisco

An Eco-Pioneer...
In March 2007, San Francisco became the first city to place an outright ban on plastic shopping bags following a warm reception of the Bag Fee Resolution presented to the mayor on November 18, 2004.

According to the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance 81-07, which went into effect on November 20, 2007, supermarkets with gross annual sales exceeeding $2 million and retail pharmacies with over five locations within San Francisco are prohibited from providing bags that are not made of compostable plastic, recyclable paper or any reusable bag of any material.

Although statewide plastic bag reycling programs are spreading across states like New York City and are being considered in Colorado and Texas, San Francisco remains the only city in the nation that currently enforces an outright ban on plastic bags.

...or Excess Baggage?
Last year, Use Less Stuff released A Qualitative Study of Grocery Bag Use in San Francisco, which summarized findings of 25 grocery store checks in order to determine the effectiveness of the Plastic Bag Recycling Act of 2006 (AB 2449). Results suggested that environmental gains resulting from the ban were nonexistent at best and the ban likely did more harm than good. Despite these counterintuitive findings associated with a bag ban, it was found that there was large public support and awareness behind the value of recycling programs.

Key conclusions drawn from the report include:

  • Consumers switched from single plastic to double paper bags
  • Few consumers remembered reusable totes, causing delays in checkout
  • Recycling bins were hard-to-find or nonexistent
  • Employees were unaware of recycling bin locations

The San Francisco Weekly has also been studying the plastic bag ban. Review of several life-cycle analyses from the past two decades reveals that "again and again, paper bags were found to require more energy to create and transport, emit more greenhouse gases, generate more water and air pollution, consume far more fresh water, produce much more solid waste, and produce markedly more eutrophication of water bodies (a condition in which an excess of nutrients, often nitrogen, leads to choking algae infestations)."

While highly visible, plastic bags occupy a tiny amount landfill space by volume and weight. A 2003 survey commissioned by the California Integrated Waste Management Board revealed that plastic bags comprise roughly 0.4% of the state's waste stream, with paper bags taking up about 1%. Despite feel-good motives behind banning plastic, there is simply no evidence showing paper to be more beneficial.

Palo Alto

In March 2009, the Palo Alto city council voted 7-to-1 for a plastic bag ban with the intent of reducing the stream of litter that ends up in local creeks and the San Francisco Bay. Though a number of large retailers such as Whole Foods, Mollie Stone's, and Country Sun have long discontinued the use of plastic bags, four major retailers in the area continue to provide complimentary plastic bags to customers. The ban is expected to start by September 18th to allow time for retailers to expend existing supplies of plastic bags and for legislators to decide whether to extend the ban to paper bags.

Many argue that the plastic bag ban will cause customers to switch to paper bags. Plastic bags require about 70% less energy to manufacture and produce half the amount of greenhouse gas emissions than paper bags. A bag ban would also hinder statewide recycling efforts outlined in AB2449, which sets annual benchmarks on plastic bag recycling programs and may lead to a ban if those requirements are not met. An added impediment to Palo Alto’s bag ban is the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition— an industry group that filed a legal suit against the city in April 2009 for failing to conduct a proper environmental study in advance. The suit was settled out of court and effectively postponed the city's quest to expand its bag ban.

Meanwhile, Palo Alto grocers are gearing up for the ban to take full effect on September 19th, 2009 and have stopped ordering plastic bags. Surveys by city staff found that reusable bag use doubled from 9 percent to 18 percent between 2008 and 2009.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles recently launched a recycling program called "It's Our L.A.! Keep It Clean" to inform and encourage residents to recycle plastic bags. The program coincides with Gov. Schwarzenegger's approval of AB 2449.

The city is poised to impose a plastic bag ban if supermarkets do not meet specified benchmarks by 2013.

Santa Clara County

The mission to impose stricter bag rules continues in Santa Clara County. After postponing the controversial issue last December, the Santa Clara County Recycling & Waste Reduction Commission reconvened on February 25th, to discuss whether to move forward on implementing a 25 cent tax on all disposable bags in the county. Lawmakers have cited concerns of imposing the fee during this economic slump and fear a public backlash. As city councilmember Cat Tucker described, "The need to reduce waste is true, but in this economy, businesses cannot afford to have such legislation against them, and for consumers - it's something we don't need at this point either."

Though the bag tax has not been decided on yet, business owners like Long Nguyen are already collecting thousands of signatures from customers in an attempt to communicate to city officals that "your voters don't want this." Nguyen owns a 7-Eleven store where the average transaction is about $5. If a bag fee were in place, customers who forget their own bag will see their bill rise by 5%-- a move that would hurt his already struggling business.

San Jose

In September 2009, the San Jose City Council approved a ban on platic and paper bags for all retailers, making it amongst the nation's strictest cities in terms of bag legislation. However, the city must file an environmental impact statement before the measure takes effect in 2011.

Solana Beach

Located in San Diego County, Solana Beach is a small community that is very active in environmental initiatives. The city's coastal location has raised concern over pollution control and in 2003, it became the first city in the nation to ban smoking along beaches. In December 2007, Solana Beach approved a law that prohibits plastic bags from being used for advertising purposes, such as being hung from doorknobs or thrown onto driveways. Solana Beach has gained a reputation for being environmentally progressive and currently, the Encinitas City Council is considering a ban on disposable plastic bags. Mayor Dave Roberts has said that Solana Beach is not considering a total ban on plastic bags because of the risk of being sued by industry groups.

Solana Beach is also finding new ways to recycle plastic bags. In August 2008, the city became the first in the county to directly contract with a manufacturer to use polyethylene bags in recycled products. The move is unique because at the moment, few, if any, cities provide plastic bags directly to a manufacturer. Not only does this move keep plastic bags out of landfills, but it also cuts out the middleman (usually a waste hauler) and comes at no cost to taxpayers.

It is this writer's hope that places looking into a bag tax or ban will explore similar alternatives which establish infrastructure to promote recycling efforts. After all, financially penalizing people and making them feel guilty for using a plastic bag-- that now requires 70% less plastic than 20 years ago-- is not an effective way to save the environment. For those who truly wish to minimize their plastic footprint, the solution is as simple as the 3R's: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.


State faces new budget shortfall, new tax ideas from SFGate on March 16, 2009.
Lawmakers are proposing a plethora of new taxes to cover the state’s massive budget deficit. Democrats Mike Davis and Julia Browley have proposed AB87/SB531 and AB68, which aims to place a 25 cent fee on plastic bags. Other proposals include fees on cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and pornography. Cities and counties are also looking for a way to raise income taxes and vehicle license fees.

Porn, Pot, and -- Plastic? Will Massive Deficit Kill or Enable Statewide Bag Fee? from SF Weekly on March 16, 2009.
New proposals aim to place a 25 cent fee on all paper, plastic, and degradable plastic bags handed out to shoppers. This article questions the rational and timing behind government efforts to start taxing bags currently being offered for free. In a recession economy, government optimism will likely fade as efforts to sack bags spark controversy.

Lilienfeld, Robert, “Review of Life Cycle Data Relating To Disposable, Compostable Biodegradable, and Reusable grocery Bags,” The ULS Report, June 1, 2007.
The ULS Report examines credible research reports in focus on San Francisco’s March 2007 ban of plastic grocery bags. The San Francisco ban prohibits the use of plastic grocery bags at supermarkets and large pharmacies. Objectives of the ban encompass stopping environmental degradation and reducing litter by replacing traditional plastic bags with reusable bags or bags made from paper or compostable plastics.

The Amended version of the AB 2058 Assembly Bill
This amended version of the AB 2058 Assembly Bill establishes an at-store recycling program that provides customers with the opportunity to return clean plastic carryout bags to grocery stores.

Plastic-bag Ban Unravels, from the Los Angeles Times on January 23, 2008
An article that describes the L.A. County board’s decision to adopt a voluntary recycling program and withdraw the motion to ban shopping and grocery bags.

Plastic bag factsheet from USC and
Answers frequently asked questions about plastic grocery bag use. Provides disposable bag production, recycling, and consumption statistics in California.

Palo Alto, CA Rejects Partnership to Increase Recycling, Outlaws Plastic Bags from the American Chemistry Council on March 16, 2009.
The Palo Alto City Council decided on banning plastic bags from large supermarkets in March 2009. This move goes against statewide recycling efforts to provide in-store bins and educate customers on the importance of reusing and reducing the amount of bags used when possible. A similar ban in San Francisco has shown that bag bans are ineffective on preserving the environment, taxing on consumers, put a strain on retailers, and have an insignificant impact on reducing litter.

Palo Alto passes plastic shopping bag ban; lawsuit looms from Palo Alto Daily News on March 17, 2009.
This local news article discusses the Palo Alto City Council’s vote on banning plastic bags. It also describes the threat of being sued by industry groups that claim the city did not create an environmental assessment prior to implementing the ban. Grocers will have six months to prepare for the ban if the ban goes into effect on time.

Program Calls for Recycling Plastic Bags from Sign On San Diego, August 7, 2008.
Solana Beach has found a private company to cut out the middleman and use plastic bags to make recycled products such as deckboards and fencing. So far few, if any, cities provide plastic bags directly to a manufacturer and Solana Beach is the first in the county to directly contract with a manufacturer.

Assembly Bill 2058 Status
From the Official California Legislative Information website, documents and related material for AB 2058, including various analyses and voting records.

Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance 81-07
Official Ordinance amending the San Francisco Environment Code by adding the “Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance”, requiring the use of compostable plastic, recyclable paper, and reusable checkout bags by grocery stores in San Francisco, and providing penalties for violations.

Baggage from SF Weekly, January 5, 2009.
San Francisco's plastic bag ban set a green trend for other cities and gave residents the perception that they were reducing their carbon footprint and saving the environment. However, current findings show that consumers have resorted to more damaging substitute and increased their consumption of paper bags, which costs more to produce and transport.

Groceries fall in line with Palo Alto's plastic bag ban from Mercury News, 9/17/2009
All seven of Palo Alto's full-service grocers are preparing for the plastic bag ban to take effect in September 2009. Though some consumers still request plastic bags, complaints have been reported to be minimal and reusable bag sales have doubled over a year.

Palo Alto settles lawsuit over plastic bags from Mountain View Voice, 7/30/2009
Palo Alto and the group have been in negotiations for three months and finally came to a settlement about completing a proper environmental review before banning plastic bags. The settlement stalls the bag ban from expanding to other cities and Palo Alto will fulfill its obligations to produce a complete environmental review before the city implements the legislation in September 2009.

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