Kicking a Bag Habit

A growing number of states are passing plastic bag bans—and often, they’re the culmination of citizen action in cities across the nation. Here’s how you can help wean your hometown off plastics.

photopalace/Alamy Stock Photo

California’s 2016 outlaw of the skimpy, single-use grocery bag—specifically, anything thinner than 30 micrometers—was a game changer. A 2019 study by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery showed that the bag ban curtailed coastal pollution and reduced plastic bag usage by 85 percent. 

Within a few years, Hawaii and New York State followed suit, and dozens of cities and towns across the nation also enacted bag-targeting legislation. Indeed, statewide bans often result from local ordinances; California’s legislation was the result of grassroots action that began in towns and cities up and down the coast. NRDC’s California legislative director, Victoria Rome, points out that in some ways, local ordinances are more effective—easier to enforce and with more teeth because consumers and city officials can hold their grocers accountable. 

True, these bags play only a small part in our consumption of disposable plastics, a class of petroleum-based materials that may take centuries to fully biodegrade. Nevertheless, they’re a major environmental scourge. An Ocean Conservancy study found that plastic bags are among the deadliest forms of ocean trash for marine birds, turtles, and mammals. Wildlife risk getting tangled in the flimsy, floating debris or may mistake it for prey—both by sight and smell. So for the sake of sea creatures, tree branches, and other hapless victims of plastic litter, get working on a plastic bag ban in your area with these tips.

Start by recycling your own stash.

Plastic bags were invented to be used once and thrown away. But even the flimsiest ones can get a second life. Your local grocery store might have a drop-off box—if not, find one here. Unfortunately, these boxes are easily overlooked—even in California, the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery found that less than 3 percent of single-use plastic bags get recycled. Meanwhile, the vast majority of curbside recycling programs refuse to pick up the bags because they get tangled in their sorting machinery.

Organize a cleanup day—and use the haul as leverage.

Heal the Bay, a nonprofit group working to restore Santa Monica Bay, holds monthly plastic and debris cleanup days in cities across the state. You can work with your own community to do the same along local shorelines (be they bay, river, or lake). The Ocean Conservancy can help you organize it. The massive amount of plastic you’re sure to fish out can help you make the case for a ban: The city of San Jose determined that just one year after putting its own bag ban in place, bag litter was reduced in surrounding creeks and rivers by nearly 80 percent.

Get on your soapbox.

Before city and state governments follow through with bans, locals have to get on board. Community education can take many forms. There’s the fun, cinematic option, for one. Host a screening of the lighthearted Bag It, which Coloradoan “everyman” Jeb Berrier produced after his town challenged a neighboring community to see who could reduce plastic bag use the most. Or invite your sillier neighbors to watch Heal the Bay’s Majestic Plastic Bag mockumentary, which assures viewers that plastic bags are not indigenous to the Pacific Ocean. For the more existential crowd, Werner Herzog voices the epic tale of a plastic bag in search of its female maker in director Ramin Bahrani’s short film Plastic Bag. And New Yorkers might appreciate the surprisingly informative beat of the music video “Plastic State of Mind.”

Or team up with grassroots groups like the Surfrider Foundation, which has 100 chapters across the world that hold regular meetings to stir community action. (Though the group was founded by surfers, you need not surf to attend.) Surfrider also created this extremely accessible Rise Above Plastics tool kit.

Find local businesses willing to help.

Shop clerks can encourage customers to go bag-free by asking whether a bag is needed, rather than assuming it is (same goes for plastic utensils at takeout restaurants). Rome mentions that in California, she has even seen storefronts with posted signs to remind shoppers about the reusable bags likely to be left in their backseats. Store owners looking to recycle unused plastic bags can try Encore Recycling or Trex.

Get in touch with your local representatives.

Make time to study successful city bag ordinances, then figure out which of your local decision makers would be likely to get on board with a ban. Has your representative supported pro-environmental legislation before? Shoot her an e-mail. After making an appointment at her office (yes, we citizens are allowed to do that)—tell her that you would like to see your city kick its bag habit. Use the recent landmark case of California as your backup if you like.

If you successfully sell your case, city government will help you draft the ordinance. Here is a sample from Forest Grove, Oregon.

If your town, city, or state officials are not ready for a full ban, they may want to consider imposing a fee. In 2009, Washington, D.C., instituted a five-cent plastic (and paper) bag fee across the city’s registrars in the name of saving the noxiously plastic-polluted Anacostia River. Between 2010 and 2015, this brought in $10 million that went to the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund. D.C.’s fees signify a move toward a post-plastic future, reinforced by the city’s Department of Energy and Environment, which has worked to educate businesses and ensure that the fee is uniformly enforced. Today, both customer and business surveys show that residents use 50 percent to 60 percent fewer bags, says Becky Hammer, staff attorney for NRDC’s Water Program. D.C. has become a model for other cities considering bag fees, and Hammer says advocates are now working on passing a plastic bottle bill.

After a plastic bag ban passes, keep pushing for compliance.

Just a couple of weeks after passage of California’s bag-ban referendum, Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, walked into a grocery store in Burbank, a city new to the ban, and noticed that about half the customers were carrying reusable bags. This is great news, says Rome. But in some cities, it may take citizens and store owners time—and conversations—to get their bag-free act together. At checkouts where plastic bags still linger, speak up. Even better, if a bag is offered, turn it down and explain why you did. And once a ban is set in place, take cues from Portland, Oregon, and continue holding businesses and your fellow shoppers accountable.


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