Plastic Bag Bans – US Update

Reusable bags are becoming mainstream as more and more municipalities follow the San Francisco lead and ban plastic bags. Currently there are hundreds of towns considering bans or taxes in order to reduce or eliminate plastic bags. Plastic bags are considered politically incorrect because of environmental hazards such as pollution, wildlife endangerment and because they are unnecessary landfill hogs. The United States throws away about 100 billion plastic bags each year, according to the EPA, and less than 2% get recycled.

Recently Westport CT became the first in the state to ban plastic bags when a vote returned overwhelmingly in favor of the ban. Westport citizens supported the tax and are proud of their green stance. Residents won the vote despite efforts of the American Chemistry Council who wishes to preserve its $4 billion plastic bag industry.

Seattle recently approved a 20-cent tax on the disposable bags, but the American Chemistry Council was successful there in getting the program put on a future ballot, so the outcome is up in the air again. They spent over $180,000 fighting the ban, or about $8 per signature to obtain a referendum. Los Angeles is likewise running into well-financed efforts by the American Chemistry Council to thwart the effort.

A plastic bag ban bill was vetoed by Hawaii County Acting Mayor Dixie Kaetsu despite the overwhelming public support. Council Chairman Pete Hoffman was quoted saying that he had never had such public response on a bill before, and over 90% of those who contacted him were in favor of the ban. In addition, there were no major retailers opposed the ban. However, once again, the Plastic Bag Affiliates, a group of American Chemistry Council members representing plastic bag manufacturers such as ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, successfully encouraged the Hawaii County Acting Mayor to oppose the ban.

Despite campaigns by the Plastic Bag Affiliates, the movement towards elimination of plastic bags is gaining momentum. Thirty Alaskan villages have banned the bags. In NJ, the Conaway-Connors Bill is calling for a partial NJ ban. Larger stores in New York City must now collect the bags for recycling.

Also considering proposals are New Haven, Boston, Oakland, Santa Monica, Steamboat Springs Co, and Portland. Madison and Guilford counties have asked New Haven for copies of its proposal.

Retailer IKEA encourages reusable bags and charges 5-cents for a plastic bag, with proceeds going to American Forests. Last April, Whole Foods stopped free plastic bags and will discontinue all plastic bags by year end. They have reportedly sold over 2 million reusable bags since the ban.

Many retailers prefer plastic bags because they are significantly cheaper than paper bags and take up less storage space. It costs grocers about $15 per family per year for plastic bags, versus estimates of $24 – $60 for paper bags. However, if consumers brought their own bags, retailers could save that money, which in turn could keep prices down for consumers.

Despite strong opposition by the Plastic Bag Affiliates, the movement away from plastic bags is gaining grassroot support. According to NPD Accessories Tracker, reusable bags were the most popular accessory for the year ending in May, and sales were up 72%.

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