California Plastic Ban Loophole Allows Tons of Waste to Slip Through

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Feb 12, 2024

Over a decade ago, California pushed the United States forward when it became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags. This move brought in a wave of anti-plastic legislation across the country.

However, these aggressive laws in California have backfired. Material recovery facilities and environmental activists noticed a negative trend in the state, and California lawmakers are trying to fight back.

California Was Revolutionary With Its Plastic Ban

California has several laws in place to combat plastic use. Laws banning specific plastic items like straws and plastic bags, along with regulations established for producers and packaging, aimed to limit and decrease the amount of plastic waste generated in the state.

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A clerk bags groceries in plastic grocery bags on June 18, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote on a proposed law would prohibit stores that sell pershiable goods for handing out the plastic grocery bags and fines would will be imposed for violators. It also calls for a 10-cent charge on paper bag use and regulations on the types of reusable bags that stores make it available to their customers.

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While the state has some of the most ambitious plastic laws in the U.S., the state is facing challenges in achieving some of its plastic reduction goals.

The State’s Plastic Problem Gets Worse

According to a report from CALPIRG, a consumer advocacy group, California discarded 157,385 tons of plastic bag waste during the year the law was passed. However, this number skyrocketed by 2022.

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Plastic water bottles and bags littered on a beach near a body of water

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In 2022, that number jumped to 231,072 plastic bag waste. That is a 47 percent jump in just several years. Why did that number spike?

The Main Cause of the Problem

Even with a population increase in the state since 2014, the number of plastic waste per person has increased significantly. The number was 4.08 tons per 1,000 people in 2014. Now, the average per 1,000 people is 5.89 tons.

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Back View of a Person Carrying a white plastic bag with food inside it

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Despite having the stiffest plastic regulations in the US, why is California witnessing a worsening plastic pollution problem? The problem is that grocery stores and large retailers are providing thicker, heavier-weight plastic bags for the price of a dime.

A Bad Habit Turns Deadly

Most Californians have all been there before: they either forgot our reusable bags at home or didn’t bring enough bags to the store, so they purchased a bag for a dime. Sometimes, the cashier is kind and doesn’t charge for the bag.

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Plastic bottles and bags littered over a field with a setting sun in the distance

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But what happens after? Does that mistake turn into a bad habit? Who cares if the bag costs a dime? It turns out that this bad habit is turning into an environmental crisis.

These Bags Are Reusable and Recyclable

“It was a conscious decision to create a pathway for a type of reusable bag that barely existed,” Mark Murray, director of Californians Against Waste, tells the Los Angeles Times. “It was just emerging in the marketplace, but it happened to be made by a couple of California companies … which the manufacturers claimed they could certify as being reusable.”

Back View of a person wearing brown pants carrying a blue plastic bag

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Murray claims the bags contain 20% recycled materials, while manufacturers tout their reusability as the reason they were exempt from California’s new plastic bag regulations.

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Why Are These Bags a Problem? 

However, this experiment failed. Consumers are not reusing these bags. Instead of being reused, the thicker plastic bags are discarded, causing more harm than good.

Plastic shopping bags accumulated in a typical German household lie on display March 4, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. Though action groups and governments are taking steps to reduce the usage of plastic bags in other countries due to the environmental problems caused by the bags, the issue has so far gained little popular discussion in Germany.

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“Basically what happened is that plastic bag companies invented these thicker plastic bags that technically meet that definition of reusable but are clearly not being reused and don’t look like reusable bags and which just circumvent the law’s intent,” Jenn Engstrom, CALPIRG’S state director, says to the LA Times.

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Does Anyone Reuse These Heavier Bags? 

SB 270, a law backed by Mark Gold, Director of Water Scarcity Solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, enabled the creation of these thicker plastic bags.

A close-up of a blue plastic bag on the ground

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Made from recyclable materials, these “reusable” bags often find themselves recycled after serving their purpose. However, residential and consumer areas are not throwing these bags away in their blue bins, according to Murray.

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Redefining Reusable Bags

California legislators are trying to find a new way to get residents and consumers to stop contributing to the growing plastic waste problem suffocating the state. Officials are closing the loophole that enables checkout distribution of these bag.

White and Red Plastic Bag with text on a wooden table

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“The idea is to go back and redefine reusable bags as a way to get rid of all those setbacks that we’re now seeing very commonly in grocery stores,” says Engstrom to the LA Times.

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The Problem With Plastics 

Plastic has been a growing problem across the globe. Scientists have found plastic everywhere from the deepest parts of the ocean to the highest mountain peaks. Most plastics, especially petroleum-based plastics, are not biodegradable and will break down into microplastics, microfibers, and nanoplastics.

Assortment of vegetables and fruits in plastic bags on a white table

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Researchers now find these bits of plastic in household dust, drinking water, and human tissue. At its worst, plastics, which carry chemicals and heavy metals, can infect animals and people with diseases and various illnesses. However, plastic bags are not the most toxic thing at your favorite stores.

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Closing the Loophole

Sen. Ben Allen recently told reports that thick plastic bags are “not what consumers demanded when they overwhelmingly voted to support California’s bag ban at the ballot box when the policy was challenged,” referencing Proposition 67, a 2016 ballot measure that would have negated the 2014 law.

A plastic grocery bag is seen in the Los Angeles River on November 17, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed Prop 26, a ban on plastic grocery bags, in unincorporated areas of the county on Tuesday November 16.

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Allen, Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda), and Sen. Catherine Blakespear (D-Encinitas) co-authored the proposed legislation.

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No More Single-Use Plastic By 2028

The new legislation would phase out single-use plastics through the Extended Producer Responsibility policy. This new policy concept would shift the waste from consumers, towns, and cities to companies manufacturing products with environmental impacts.

A volunteer collects plastic waste that washed up on the shores and mangroves of Freedom Island to mark International Coastal Clean-up Day on September 15, 2023 in Las Pinas, Metro Manila, Philippines. The Philippines remains one of the largest ocean polluters in the world, contributing a third of the 80% of global ocean plastic that comes from Asian rivers, according to a 2021 report by Oxford University's Our World in Data. Poverty has led the Philippines to become a "sachet economy" that consumes 163 million sachets every day, worsening marine plastic pollution in the region. The trash is piling up on land, clogging coastlines, spilling into the sea, and traveling to remote corners of the globe, as the country fails to meet targets for improved waste management that it signed into law more than two decades ago.

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While the legislation will implement other actions to fight plastic waste, the law hopes to see 30 percent of plastic items sold, distributed, or imported into the state be recyclable by 2028.

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