California's Plastic Bag Ban: Myths And Facts

On September 30, California became the first state to ban the use of plastic bags in stores, leading to a barrage of misinformation from various media outlets claiming the ban would actually hurt the environment. However, these contrarian claims are undermined by research showing that previous bans and taxes have reduced energy use and litter, while doing no harm to the economy.

MYTH: Plastic Bag Alternatives Are Worse For The Environment

  • The Reason Foundation's James Agresti cherry-picked a U.K. Environment Agency study to assert that all reusable bags must be used hundreds of times in order to bring an environmental benefit in a feature at The Wall Street Journal titled “Bans on Plastic Bags Harm The Environment.” [The Wall Street Journal6/15/12]
  • An editorial from the Orange County Register similarly claimed that research suggests “plastic carryout bags are, on balance, less harmful to the environment than paper, cotton or other types of reusable shopping bags.” [Orange County Register9/30/14]
  • National Review Online's Nat Brown misquoted a report on Ireland's plastic bag tax, claiming that sales of non-grocery bags “rose an astonishing 400 percent,” entirely offsetting the benefits of the tax. However, that number came from a single store, and newspapers estimated that the actual rise overall was less than a fourth of that. [National Review Online, 10/1/14; OLR Research Report, 12/17/08]

FACT: Bans Significantly Reduce Energy Use And Waste

UK Study: One Type Of Reusable Bag Needs Only 4 Reuses To Be Better Than A Plastic Bag. A 2011 U.K. Environment Agency study looked at how often paper bags and three different types of reusable bags -- low-density polyethylene (LDPE), non-woven polypropylene (PP), and cotton bags -- needed to be reused to have a lower impact on climate change than other types of bags. Conservative media have cherry-picked this study, reporting only that the cotton bag needs to be reused 131 times to be better for the environment than a conventional, lightweight, one-use plastic bag -- labeled as a High-density polyethylene (HDPE) bag. However, the study also found that reusable bags made from LDPE or PP needed to only be reused 4 or 11 times, respectively, to have a lower environmental impact. The study also measured how often these bags would need to be reused in order to have a lower impact than plastic bags, assuming that some or all of the bags were used as trash can (“bin”) liners:

bag usage

[U.K. Environment Agency, February 2011

Non-Partisan Study: Plastic Bag Bans Lead To Significant Decrease In Energy Use And Waste. A 2013 report from the non-partisan Equinox Center found that after plastic bag bans (PBB) were enacted in the cities of San Jose and Santa Monica and the county of Los Angeles, the use of single-use plastic bags (SUPB) significantly declined with the majority of consumers using reusable bags or no bag.

bag usage

The study also projected that implementing such a ban in San Diego could result in a significant decrease in energy use and waste:

bag emissions

[Equinox Center, October 2013]

Plastic Bag Bans And Taxes Have Already Reduced Plastic Bag Use Dramatically. Several countries and cities have enacted bans or taxes on plastic bags, and have seen their plastic bag litter drop significantly:

  • Weeks after the Republic of Ireland implemented a tax on plastic bags, the plastic bag usage there dropped 94 percent. Before the tax, the country had a severe plastic bag problem, with the sides of roads “covered in plastic” according to an interview in the New York Times. [The New York Times, 1/31/08]
  • The United Nations Environment Programme reported that "[i]n Australia, the retailer IKEA put a 10 cent charge on its plastic bags while also providing a re-usable alternative. It reports a 97 per cent drop in the use of plastic bags." [UNEP, 2/23/05]
  • After enacting a plastic bag fee of 5 cents, Washington, D.C.'s bag usage dropped from about 22 million each month to 3 million the first month the fee was in effect, according to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue as reported by The Washington Post. [The Washington Post, 3/30/10]

MYTH: Plastic Bag Bans Do Not Decrease Litter

  • The Orange County Register published an op-ed by the Reason Foundation's Lance Christensen claiming that “when plastic bags were banned in San Francisco, the county's own studies showed that litter actually increased.” [Orange County Register, 10/2/14]
  • published an article asserting that plastic bag bans “don't reduce litter and they don't help the environment. They just make you carry all your groceries in other types of bags.” [, 10/6/14]
  • Reason Foundation's Julian Morris repeated a widely circulated misquote, stating in an op-ed at Las Cruces Sun-News that “David Santillo, a senior biologist with Greenpeace, told The Times of London: 'It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite...On a global basis plastic bags aren't an issue.'” [Las Cruces Sun-News, 10/05/14]

FACT: Bans Reduce The Litter Problem

PolitiFact: Claim That San Francisco Litter Increased After Bag Ban Is “Mostly False.” PolitiFact rated the claim that litter increased in San Francisco after its bag ban “mostly false”:

A litter audit conducted before the ban took full effect found two more retail plastic bags than the previous year's sampling. However, the next audit, launched after the ban had been fully in place for nearly a year, saw a two-bag drop. [PolitiFact, 3/20/13]

San Jose Study Found Major Reduction In Litter Following Bag Ban. A plastic bag ban in San Jose reduced bag litter in “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods,” according to a report from San Jose's Transportation and Environment Committee. [City of San Jose, 11/21/12]

BBC: Ireland Bag Tax Drastically Reduced Litter. A BBC News report stated that Ireland's plastic bag tax, introduced in early 2002, “led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter.” [BBC News, 3/18/12]

World Produces 4-5 Trillion Plastic Bags Each Year And Most End Up As Litter. A report from the Worldwatch Institute on plastic bag bans stated that 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags were produced in one year, 80 percent of which were “used in North American and Western Europe.” The report further explained that Americans throw away 100 billion bags each year and that the bags are the “major source of human-related debris on the seabed”:

Some 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags--including large trash bags, thick shopping bags, and thin grocery bags--were produced globally in 2002, according to the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2004 report. Roughly 80 percent of those bags were used in North America and Western Europe. Every year, Americans reportedly throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags, which can clog drains, crowd landfills, and leave an unsightly blot on the landscape.

Perhaps less widely known is the destructive impact that plastic bags have on oceans and marine life. Tossed into waterways or washed down storm drains, the bags are the major source of human-related debris on the seabed, particularly near coastlines, according to the 2007 Worldwatch report Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiversity. At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, and plastics and other synthetic materials cause the most problems for marine animals and birds.

Every year, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags. The animals may mistake the bags for food, such as jellyfish, or simply become entangled. [, accessed 10/7/14]

Plastic Grocery Bags Are 6th Most Prominent Trash Found On Coasts. Data collected by hundreds of thousands of International Coastal Cleanup volunteers for the Ocean Conservancy indicate that plastic grocery bags are a major source of trash polluting beaches and oceans:

plastic graphic

[Ocean Conservancy, “Turning the Tide on Trash,” 2014]

Plastic Bags Might Take Up To 1,000 Years To Decompose. From a Mother Jones article explaining California's plastic bag ban:

No one is sure how long a plastic bag takes to decompose, but estimates range from 500 to 1,000 years. Even then, they never fully biodegrade; they just break down into ever-tinier plastic pellets. Each year, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die after getting entangled with bags or mistaking them for food. In 2010, a gray whale that was beached and died in Seattle was found to have more than 20 plastic bags in its stomach. [Mother Jones, 9/15/14]

Greenpeace Biologist Responds To “Misquote” From Times Of London. In an e-mail to Media Matters, Greenpeace biologist David Santillo stated that he had been “misquote[d]” by the Times of London, and that he had actually told the paper that “dealing with plastic bags would be a small step in the right direction”:

[T]his is, I'm afraid, a very long-running misquote from an interview in the Times newspaper in the UK many years ago (2008). At the time we requested a retraction on the basis that the reporting of my interview was wholly misrepresentative, but the Times refused. They also refused to publish a letter from me setting out what I had actually said to the journalist.


Quotes attributed to me in italics - what I actually said in normal type.

“It is very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite.”

We know that plastic litter causes the death and injury of tens to hundreds of thousands of marine mammals, turtles and seabirds around the world every year. In the case of the larger mammals, this is thought to be primarily through entanglement, rather than through eating and choking on plastics, with discarded fishing gear a very significant contributor. Relatively few data are available on the scale of impacts on marine wildlife caused by plastic bags including, for example, their contribution to the distribution and impacts of smaller plastic fragments which pollute the world's oceans. However, the evidence available so far suggests that the vast majority of plastics-related deaths of seals, cetaceans and seabirds are not caused by plastic bags.

“We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags”.

We are not going to solve the problems caused by plastic wastes by focussing [sic] on plastic bags alone, but dealing with plastic bags would be a small step in the right direction. Plastic bags are one of those wasteful uses of plastics which understandably come immediately to mind for most people when they think about the problems of plastic wastes, even if bags are not primarily responsible for killing seals or seabirds. So while efforts to tackle plastic bags are not going to solve the global problems of plastic waste, they can start people thinking about the wider problems caused by plastic wastes in the oceans and on land, which result from our careless and wasteful use of plastics as materials. [Email to Media Matters, 10/8/14]

MYTH: Plastic Bags Are Reused Often, Eliminating Their Environmental Impact

  • An editorial from the Orange County Register suggested that plastic bags are not bad for the environment because “most of us don't simply throw away plastic bags we get from the grocery store; instead, using the bags for other things, such as picking up trash or cleaning up after pets.” [Orange County Register, 9/30/14]
  • In an interview with National Review Online, Americans for Tax Reform's Patrick Gleason derided San Francisco's plastic bag ban by saying that people reuse bags “to line waste bins, clean up after a pet, etc., so when you don't have a stockpile built up and aren't saving these bags, you have to go buy new ones.” [National Review Online, 10/1/14]
  • The VV Daily Press, a newspaper serving California's Victor Valley, published an op-ed stating: “Studies, of course, show that most people reuse plastic bags, and when they have the option, they choose plastic bags for convenience, durability, resistance to weather, and reusability.” [VV Daily Press, 10/2/14]

FACT: Large Amounts Of Plastic Bags Aren't Easily Reused Or Recycled

As The Average Family Brings Home 1,500 Bags A Year, It's Unlikely They're All Reused. Mother Jones reporter Katie Rose Quandt noted that “it seems unlikely” that all of the thousands of plastic bags brought home by the average American family are reused:

Some Californians have complained that they already reuse plastic bags to clean up after pets and line wastebaskets, although it seems unlikely that the average family finds uses for the 1,500 bags brought home each year. [Mother Jones, 9/15/14]

Only 3 Percent Of Plastic Bags Are Recycled. The Associated Press reported that California's recycling rate for plastic bags was only 3 percent and likely hasn't improved:

Some opponents of the legislation favor an approach that encourages recycling plastic bags instead of banning them. California set up such a program in 2006, but The Associated Press found the state wasn't tracking how many bags were recycled. The state's last review of the data, in 2009, found a recycling rate of only 3 percent, and officials doubt it has improved much since then. [Associated Press, 9/30/14]

Plastic Bags Can Shut Down Traditional Recycling Plants. Mother Jones reported that plastic bags can cause problems for recycling facilities, and that most plastic bags aren't actually recycled but “downcycled” or used for park benches and flooring materials:

Improperly recycled bags also cause problems for recycling centers like San Francisco's Recology. “When people put them in the recycling bin--and they should not do that--they wind up down at the recycling plant and they wrap around a lot of the recycling equipment,” public relations manager Robert Reed tells Mother Jones. About twice a day, “you have to turn your equipment off and send mechanics in with box knives to cut them out.”

Designated plastic bag recycling facilities exist, but the EPA estimates only 12 percent of bags make it there. CalRecycle puts the statewide number even lower at 3 percent. Even when bags are returned to the proper bin, they aren't truly recycled, but downcycled. “Because plastic bags have a variety of dyes and other additives, it's hard to know exactly what you're getting if you melt down a bunch of bags that consumers have used,” explains Larsen. Instead, used bags “generally get turned into something else, such as park benches or flooring material.” [Mother Jones, 9/15/14]

MYTH: Ban Will Cause Foodborne Illness Deaths

  • Bloomberg View published a column from National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru titled “The Disgusting Consequences of Plastic-Bag Bans” that claimed a study found that a ban on plastic bags in San Francisco led to 5.5 more deaths per year. [Bloomberg View, 2/4/13]
  • An article in the Deseret News titled “How reusable shopping bags can kill” highlighted the same study. [Deseret News, 2/4/13]
  • highlighted a separate report that “found shoppers rarely washed [reusable] bags, nearly all of which became a breeding ground for bacteria,” failing to disclose that the report was funded by the American Chemistry Council, which represents several plastic bag manufacturers. [CNBC, 10/2/14

FACT: Studies Fail To Link Deaths To Bags And Washing Bags Can Prevent Contamination

Expert: San Francisco Study Fails To Rule Out Alternative Explanation. Brad Plumer, then a writer for The Washington Post's WonkBlog, reported that the study claiming an increase in E. Coli deaths in San Francisco was based on incomplete information and failed to rule out an alternative explanation of the increase:

The paper, by Wharton's Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright, found that food-borne illnesses in San Francisco increased 46 percent after the bag ban went into effect in 2007--with no such uptick in neighboring counties.


In order to establish a link between the bag ban and illnesses, the authors would have to show that the same people who are using reusable bags are also the ones getting sick. This study doesn't do that. [Tomás] Aragón [ -- an epidemiologist at UC Berkeley and health officer for the city of San Francisco --] also points out that emergency-room data can be very incomplete--under an alternate measure, there's been no rise in E. coli at all.

Aragón also offers an alternative hypothesis for the recent rise in deaths related to intestinal infections. A large portion of the cases in San Francisco involve C. difficile enterocolitis, a disease that's often coded as food-borne illness in hospitals. And this disease has become more common in lots of places since 2005, all around the United States, Canada, and Europe (for yet-unexplained reasons). “The increase in San Francisco,” he notes, “probably reflects this international increase.”

Klick, for his part, told the San Francisco Chronicle that it was hard to “rule out the possibility that there was something peculiar that happened in San Francisco.” That's fair enough. But it suggests his study could only raise the question, not prove a link. [The Washington Post, Wonkblog, 2/16/13]

Expert: “Your Average Healthy Person Is Not Going To Get Sick” From The Bacteria. NPR's Shots blog reported that the study finding bacteria in most bags and E. coli in some failed to note whether the E. coli found were harmless strains:

Yes, a study funded by the American Chemistry Council, which by the way represents some disposable plastic bag makers, found there might be microbes hitchhiking in your reusable bags. But a few germs aren't likely to pose much of a health risk.


Dr. Susan Fernyak, director of San Francisco's Communicable Disease and Control Prevention division, tells Shots, “Your average healthy person is not going to get sick from the bacteria that were listed.”

The report says researchers found E. coli in seven of the [84] bags tested. But Fernyak says the study doesn't identify the type of E. coli in the bags, a significant shortcoming. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Contamination can happen with any surface that touches meat, like a counter top, she says. “There's nothing special about these bags than anything else that can become contaminated,” she says.

But she adds that researchers would probably find a certain percentage of the population wasn't cleaning cutting boards properly. She says reusable bags are safe, but washing the bags isn't a bad idea. [NPR, Shots, 6/25/10]

Washing Bags Eliminates 99.9 Percent Of The Bacteria. The Federal Food Safety blog from the Department of Health and Human Services recommends washing reusable bags, which according to an International Association for Food Protection article eliminates over 99.9 percent of the bacteria found in the reusable bags:

  • Cloth reusable bags should be washed in a washing machine using laundry detergent and dried in the dryer or air-dried.
  • Plastic-lined reusable bags should be scrubbed using hot water and soap and air-dried.
  • Check that both cloth and plastic-lined reusable bags are completely dry before storing them.


  • Use separate bags dedicated for meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and ready-to-eat foods. It's also a good idea to keep these foods separated in your shopping cart, at the checkout line on the conveyor belt, and at home. This will help reduce cross-contamination. [, 12/24/12; International Association for Food Protection, August 2011]

MYTH: Ban Will Harm The Economy

  • On Fox News' America's Newsroom, co-host Martha MacCallum claimed the bag ban and other regulations will “make it impossible for businesses” to do business in California and make it “tough on their economy overall.” [Fox News, America's Newsroom, 10/1/14]
  • CBS' CBS This Morning uncritically repeated a claim from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a lobbying group attempting to overturn the bag ban, that the bill will jeopardize “thousands of California manufacturing jobs.”  [CBS, CBS This Morning, 10/1/14, via Nexis]
  • The Washington Post published a statement from the Alliance that asserted the bill will “scam California consumers out of billions of dollars without providing any public benefit” without mentioning any of the projected economic benefits due to lower waste management costs.  [The Washington Post10/1/14]
  •   NBC Nightly News promoted the claim that California's bag ban is responsible for shutting down manufacturing lines, including a Crown Poly employee's statement that the ban is “jeopardizing [their] jobs.” [NBC, NBC Nightly News, 9/30/14 via Nexis] 

FACT: Ban Funds Plastic Bag Manufacturers To Retool Facilities

Ban Includes $2 Million In Loans For Plastic Bag Manufacturers To Retool Their Facilities. The Associated Press reported that the bill includes "$2 million in loans for plastic bag manufacturers to shift their operations to make reusable bags":

Responding to the concerns about job losses, the bill includes $2 million in loans for plastic bag manufacturers to shift their operations to make reusable bags. That provision won the support of Los Angeles Democratic Sens. Kevin De Leon and Ricardo Lara, who had blocked earlier versions of the legislation. [The Associated Press, 9/30/14, via]

Plastic Bag Bans Spur Market Growth For Alternatives. A report on the effects of Los Angeles County's plastic bag ban from its Department of Public Works noted that since the county implemented its ban, “local reusable bag companies have started to emerge to take advantage of this growing market.” [L.A. County Department of Public Works, accessed 10/7/14]

Plastic Bag Bans Will Reduce Millions Of Dollars In Disposal And Cleanup Costs. A fact sheet from environmental advocacy organization Save the Bay stated that “California taxpayers spend approximately $25 million every year to collect and landfill plastic bags,” citing data from the California Integrated Waste Management Board, and that San Jose alone spends “at least $3 million annually to clean plastic bags from creeks and clogged storm drains.” [Save the Bay, accessed 10/7/14]

Studies Predict Economic Benefits From Bag Bans. The Equinox Center studied the economic impacts of plastic bag bans on two California cities and determined that there has been “no sustained negative (economic) impact to retailers.” San Francisco's Office of Economic Analysis further predicted that plastic bag bans would result in a “slight positive impact on the local economy.” The Equinox Center study “also reported that affected San Francisco retailers would see a savings of $3 million over the course of a year under the strengthened ban, no longer having to pay for so many single-use bags.” [Public CEO, 2/20/14]