San Jose’s Bag Ban Useless in Solving Litter Problems –Should Be Rescinded

Palm trees lining streets in San Jose, California
Palm trees lining streets in San Jose, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As previously noted in the blog article titled “San Jose Painfully Learns Litter Problems Were Not Solved by Plastic Bag Ban!”, the City of San Jose is painfully discovering that it’s much touted plastic bag ban that cost residents millions of dollars did virtually nothing to solve the city’s serious litter problems. According to the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), one of the stated reasons for implementing the bag ban was to reduce litter on city streets, in creeks, and in storm drains. (City of San Jose, 2010) Two years after the plastic bag ban was implemented, that there has been no reduction of overall litter. Furthermore, the case is made, using San Jose’s own litter surveys and claims of bag ban success, to show that the plastic bag ban was never needed but was a very expensive mistake.

Although the exact number of single-use paper and plastic carryout bags used in the city is unknown, the city estimates that 68 million paper bags and 500 million single-use plastic carryout bags are used every year. In fact the Draft EIR identifies that 1.4 plastic bags are used per day by every living person in the City of San Jose which equates to 511 plastic carryout bags per person per year. (City of San Jose, 2010) This means that a family of four would use 4 x 511 or 2044 plastic bags per year.

In a November 20, 2012 memorandum to the San Jose City Council from Kerrie Romanov (Director of Environmental Services for San Jose) the following statement was made:

Reducing the use of single-use carryout bags … supports the City’s Stormwater Permit requirement to reduce trash from the storm drain system from entering local creeks and enhance water quality: reduces litter in City sheets and neighborhoods: and lowers the cost of litter control.” (Romanov, 2012, p. 2)

The goal for the BYOB Ordinance was to reduce environmental and litter impacts associated with the production, use, and disposal of single-use bags by motivating shoppers to carry reusable bags. (Romanov, 2012, p. 2)

The city of San Jose, to their credit, is one of very few cities that conducted litter surveys before and after implementation of the city’s plastic bag ban. The surveys included city streets, creeks, and storm drain catch basins.

Survey data obtained from the City of San Jose show that the city street survey showed a reduction from 796 to 76 plastic carryout bags after the bag ban was implemented; the creek survey showed a reduction from 2,037 to 513 plastic carryout bags; and the storm drain survey shows a reduction from 80 to 9 plastic carryout bags. (City of San Jose, 2012)

What should concern citizens is that the total number of single-use plastic carryout bags retrieved over two years during the litter surveys, before implementation of the plastic bag ban, is only 2,913 plastic bags. To be more specific, this is the same number of plastic bags used per year by only 6 people (511 plastic carryout bags per year per person) out of a population of more than 1 million! Furthermore, the 2,913 plastic carryout bags is only 0.0005826% out of the 500 million plastic carryout bags used in the city of San Jose per year.

Since the surveys were conducted at selected locations, particularly litter hot spots, it does not necessarily represent the total number of plastic bags littered citywide.

Clearly, the quantity of plastic bags littered is small enough to be handled by traditional litter abatement methods and do not rise to a level that requires a drastic solution such as a plastic bag ban.

In a September 2014, press release the following statement is made:

“In 2011, prior to the start of the ordinance, City staff removed more than 1,300 plastic bags from 10 creek hot spots. Over the two years following the ban’s enactment, cleanups at those same hot spots averaged a 71% decrease in plastic bag litter.” (Spiegel, 2014)

The statement by Kerrie Romanow, director of San Jose Environmental Services Department that “In 2011, prior to the start of the ordinance, City staff removed more than 1,300 plastic bags from 10 creek hot spots” reveals several important points:

  1. The 1,300 plastic bags found in 10 hot spots is less than 2044 plastic bags that one family in San Jose uses in an entire year! (City of San Jose, 2010)
  2. Had the city of San Jose just paid someone $10 for each plastic bag retrieved from those 10 hot spots, the city would have spent $13,000 rather than the hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor and contract costs to implement a bag ban including the cost to prepare an EIR and other documentation. In other words, the City of San Jose wasted a lot of money.
  3. The cost to San Jose residents from the Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) ordinance is an additional $23 million per year just to bring groceries home. (Williams & van Leeuwen, 2013) The increased cost was totally unnecessary, since the 1300 plastic bags could have been removed from hot spots for $13,000 or less using traditional litter abatement and removal methods.

It is clear that 1300 plastic carryout bags out of 500 million plastic carryout bags used by shoppers in San Jose every year is NOT a problem that demands a bag ban costing residents millions of dollars per year when it is much easier to hire several people to clean up those bags at a much lower cost and with far less frustration to shoppers.

It should be obvious that the complaint filed by California Fish & Wildlife and the potential lawsuit by San Francisco Baykeeper are proof that the San Jose’s Single-Use Carryout Bag ordinance, while obviously reducing the number of plastic carryout bags in the litter stream by completely banning them citywide, had no real effect on total litter reduction and the cost to control litter.

It should be obvious to the reader that despite the litter surveys conducted by the City of San Jose, that the city failed to put the problem with plastic bags in proper perspective and as part of a larger and broader problem with litter prevention and abatement. In addition, the city failed to analyze the magnitude of the plastic bag litter compared to the total quantity of plastic bags used in the City of San Jose. It appears that the city did not analyze the source of litter in creeks, some of which comes from storm drains (which are flushed out only if it rains) and some of which comes from homeless encampments along the riverbed.

Had the city done a proper cost benefit analysis they should have rejected a bag ban in favor of comprehensive solutions such as installing trash capture devices in storm drain catch basins and removing homeless encampments in the riverbed. These are solutions that the city ended up having to do anyway and which would have eliminated plastic bags and other litter from the riverbed all at the same time. In addition, the city could have considered hiring dedicated staff to work full time on cleaning up plastic bags (and other litter) at a tiny fraction of the cost that now burdens San Jose citizens who are forced to comply with the city’s bag ban. In other words, the plastic bag ban was totally unnecessary and wasteful.

The city of San Jose should immediately repeal the Bring Your Own Bag ordinance and the State of California should repeal the statewide bag ban.

The complete article is available by clicking the following link: San Jose Discovers Bag Ban Does Not Solve Litter Problems


City of San Jose. (2010, July). Draft Environmental Impact Report – Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance (SCH # 2009102095). Retrieved January 15, 2014, from City of San Jose:

City of San Jose. (2012). San Jose Stormdrain Catch Basin Trash Characterization Summary Table. City of San Jose: City of San Jose.

Romanov, K. (2012, November 20). Bring Your Own Bag Ordinance Implementation Results and Actions To Reduce EPS Foam Food Ware. Retrieved August 12, 2013, from City of San Jose:

Spiegel, E. (2014, September 3). San José Wins Prestigious League of California Cities Award for Plastic Bag Ban. Retrieved from

Williams, D., & van Leeuwen, A. (2013, August 23). Rebuttal of the San Jose Bag Ban Results. Retrieved from Fight The Plastic Bag Ban:


1 thought on “San Jose’s Bag Ban Useless in Solving Litter Problems –Should Be Rescinded

  1. when you said “San Francisco BayKeepers” have a pending lawsuit, it basically says it all. That is Robert Kennedy Jr.’s group. They threaten lawsuits, and actually follow through based on EPA laws that allow them to sue if they threaten that they have personal harm through actions. The San Francisco group sent their people to Ventura to sue the city of Ventura regarding the Wastewater issue in Ventura. It is one reason we now have the responsibility to pay to check our Sewer laterals before we sell our house. The settlement made by our city (out of fear) will cost residents from now on.

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