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Californians increase plastic bag use by 40% even with partial state ban in place
Correct Dennis Wyatt mug 2022
Dennis Wyatt

Here’s a fun fact to pound into your head: Every Californian tossed out the equivalent of 11 pounds of plastic bags in 2021. That’s based on an audit Cal Recycle does of what we bury in landfills.

It’s a stunning per capita amount given the feather-like weight of the flimsy plastic bags we curse and the heavier ones we fork over a dime for at the store.

But, you might say, thank goodness the use of thin low-polyethylene in grocery stores was banned statewide in 2014.

That same law also improved our recycling habits with thicker, re-useable high-polyethylene bags we are charged a dime for to bag our purchases, right?


Back in 2004 when there were 35 million Californians – a full decade before the ban – we buried 147,039 tons of plastic bags or eight pounds per capita. By 2021 when there were 39 million Californians seven years after the ban went into effect, we buried 11 pounds per capita.

That is not a misprint.

The ban on flimsy grocery store bags and the requirement they make heavier bags designed to be reusable available for a state mandated 10 cent charge by law had no real impact.

It’s not that we haven’t cut down on grocery store plastic bags. But we have increased the use of plastic such as bubble packaging and such with online shopping skyrocketing.

How we receive what we order online has more than negated any advantage from the store ban on flimsy bags and “buying” heavier plastic bags at a dime a pop that most of us never use again for shopping.

Everyone pays the dime except those using SNAP benefits to buy groceries. The state mandates that the minimum 10 cent they require retailers to charge be waived for SNAP customers.

That means plastic bags that cost grocery stores around a nickel each are resold at the state requirement minimum of 10 cents. The theory was most people would refrain from being nickeled and dimed to death. In reality, it is one of the most profitable transactions for a grocery store.

There is some good news. The amount of flimsy plastic bags being picked up from California’s coastline during annual clean up days has dropped – from 65,716 bags in 2010 down to 24,602 bags in 2016, two years after the ban went into effect. The number was at 26,460 bags in 2022.

The drop- off was likely caused by people not being able to grab flimsy bags they brought home to bag things for  outings or getting such a bag when they stop by a store and grab a bag full of munchies for the day.

There are still tons of lightweight plastic that make their way into landfills as is evidenced by the 20 to 30 foot high mesh fences surrounding the modern-day version of dumps that is used to prevent plastic bags an et al to be scattered all over creation via the wind.

The bottom line of the bag ban is simple. It did clean up the environment somewhat when it comes to littering and posing hazards to wildlife. But it had a minimal effect on reducing what we bury in landfills, where it will take hundreds upon hundreds of years to break down.

And if you fork over 50 cents a week or so for bags because you forget to take your own with you to the store, you contributed $26 to retailers’ bottom line each year that is negated by another wonderful ballot measure that decriminalized shoplifting.

It is against that backdrop the California State Senator Catherine Blakespear has proposed legislation to end the expensive charade. She introduced legislation recently that would ban all plastic shopping bags — regardless of thickness — by 2026.

There is more to the issue of plastic bags than just the ones that are a dime a pop at the grocery checkout stand. In retrospect, it is why the 2014 ballot initiative Californians approved after the plastic bag industry challenged the state law banning the flimsy one was doomed to never reduce per plastic bag waste per capita. No one back then had the foresight that upwards of 20 percent of all shopping would be online.

All of that shipping to doorsteps increases paper-based products required to package purposes. But it also substantially increased the use of plastic bags.

Granted, the low and hard grade polyethylene online retailing uses aren’t in the shape of what you bag your stuff with in the form of the checkout stand offerings at Walmart et al.

They tend to be sealed bags. And quite often there will be a bunch of smaller sealed bags instead larger sealed bags.

Cardboard and non-corrugated packing that is paperboard — think most shoeboxes — are easier to recycle.

There is an effective process in place. We just need to do it.

And that means recycling following the rules and not misconceptions so we don’t render what we place in recycling carts impossible to recycle because of contamination.

There is a process to recycling polyethylene. But it is tedious and somewhat cumbersome.

Add the fact that the chain gets broken along the way with studies showing they end up being landfilled anyway due likely to the sheer volume that must be accumulated in terms of weight to make the process work.

That makes plastic bags extremely problematic when it comes to recycling.

It is clear that online shopping concerns need to keep finding ways to reduce packaging without damaging products they ship to avoid more stuff buried at landfills sooner than later.

Traditional shopping bags— and not just those at grocery stores — are the proverbial low-hanging fruit. They can be eliminated. Paper bags can be used. While they have their own environmental drawbacks, paper bags don’t take a couple of centuries to decompose.

Besides, real reusable bags are working out just fine for a lot of people. It requires a change of habits and some getting used to, and that’s about it.

It’s time to ban plastic shopping bags — the one use ones as well as those that shoppers are fleeced out of a dime and end up almost never reusing for shopping.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Courier or 209 Multimedia.