Plastic Carry-Out Bag Ban – More Plastic Headed To Landfill

One of the unintended consequences of banning plastic carry out bags is that more plastic will be headed to the landfill the exact opposite of what proponents of the plastic carry out bag ban want.
California state law (AB 2449) requires retail stores that issue plastic carry out bags at the checkout counter must have a recycling container in or outside each store. This recycling container not only accepts plastic carry out bags, but also other plastic bags and shrink wrap. These include produce bags, dry-cleaning bags, bread bags, newspaper bags and shrink wraps from paper towels, bathroom tissue, napkins, and diapers.
In extending the expiring AB 2449 by SB 1219, California legislators noted that the program enjoyed “modest success” in recovery of plastic carry out bags but they pointed out that the recovery of plastic shrink wrap and film increased “more dramatically” and avoided sending this material to the landfill.
For example, in 2009 retail stores purchased 53,000 tons of plastic carry out bags and 1,520 tons were recycled for a recovery rate of 2.9%. In addition, 17,589 tons of other plastic bags and film was recycled through this program. That means there were 11 tons of other plastic bags and film recycled for every ton of plastic carry out bags.
It should be noted that plastic bags and plastic film that are recycled through the In-store recycling programs are not accepted for recycling in the curbside recycling bins or by the Gold Coast Recycling and Transfer Station. The reason cited is that the cost of separating the plastic bags and wraps from other recycled material makes it uneconomical. In addition, plastic bags and film get stuck in the sorting equipment. [Note: The City of Santa Barbara allows residents to put clean plastic bags and film in the blue curbside recycle barrel; whereas, Ventura County cities cannot.]
One inherent weakness of AB 2449/SB 1219 is that only stores that issue plastic carry out are required to establish and maintain an in-store recycling program; other stores may do so on a voluntary basis.
That means Big Box Stores that do not issue plastic carry out bags do not have to establish an in-store recycling program. These stores can make a profit from the sale of products containing plastic shrink wrap and film, and the cost of recycling that material is then borne by retailers who do issue plastic carry out bags (i.e. grocery stores).
Retail stores are compensated for every ton of plastic bags and plastic wrap turned in for recycling; However, labor costs to maintain the in-store recycling program are much greater with the difference made up by shoppers through higher prices. Hence, there is little incentive for retail stores to continue the In-store recycling program once plastic carry out bags are banned and the stores are no longer subject to AB 2449/SB 1219. In San Francisco the plastic carry out bag ban has led grocery stores to shut down their plastic bag recycling programs.
In the event a ban on plastic carry out bags is implemented in Ventura County or one of the incorporated cities, retail stores will more than likely terminate their in-store recycling programs. As a result, consumers will lose access to facilities for recycling plastic bags and plastic shrink wrap. Since this material is NOT accepted in the curbside recycling bin, consumers will have no other option than to dispose of this material in the trash bin resulting in more plastic going to the landfill instead of being recycled.
Ventura County and incorporated cities would do well to build upon the existing infrastructure of in-store recycling programs by NOT banning plastic carry out bags. Many consumers are unaware that other plastic bags and plastic shrink wrap can also be recycled through the in-store recycling programs. A better job of educating the public will help to improve not only the recovery rate of plastic carry out bags but other plastics bags and wraps as well – keeping more plastic out of the landfill.
Diversion of plastic from landfills to recycling activities should be a component of the proposed ordinance.