Is California’s Bag Ban Really a Success?

Lassen Volcanic National Park – Terminal Geyser by Eugene Zelenko CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The San Jose Mercury News recently published an editorial entitled “Success! California’s first-in-the-nation plastic bag ban works”. The editorial claims that because fewer plastic bags were found during this year’s Coastal Clean Up day proves that California’s “grand experiment” with a plastic bag ban is a success. (Mercury News & East Bay Times Editorial Boards, 2017)

But is finding fewer littered plastic bags a real measure of the bag ban’s success? If not, how do you really measure the success of the state’s plastic bag ban law? Is success not determined by results and how well each of the law’s objectives are met? The answer is a resounding, Yes!

Success is defined as “The accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” (Oxford Dictionary, 2017) Using this definition and assuming a narrowly defined goal to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic grocery bag litter, then the plastic bag ban could be considered “a success”. It could never be otherwise! After all, if you ban or sharply curtail the use of single-use plastic grocery bags there will be fewer available to be littered.

However, a plastic bag ban law is not simply about reducing or eliminating single-use plastic grocery bags[1], but it is also about changing consumer behavior and reducing impacts to the landfill and to the environment. These objectives are embodied in the state law and also spelled out in the Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) developed to support local plastic bag bans. These objectives are as follows”. (van Leeuwen & Williams, Bag Bans: A Failure – Not Success As Claimed, 2013):

  • “Reducing the environmental impacts related to single use plastic carryout bags, such as impacts to biological resources (including marine environments), water quality and utilities” (solid waste equipment and facilities) (BEACON, 2013)
  • “Deterring the use of paper bags by retail customers” (BEACON, 2013)
  • “Promoting a shift toward the use of reusable carryout bags by retail customers” (BEACON, 2013)
  • “Reducing the amount [SIC] of single-use bags in trash loads to reduce landfill volumes” (BEACON, 2013)
  • “Reducing litter and the associated adverse impacts to storm water systems, aesthetics and marine and terrestrial environments” (BEACON, 2013)

These objectives suggest that success cannot simply be determined on the basis of finding fewer littered plastic bags in the environment, but on the successful outcome of all five objectives. In fact, the reader is encouraged to read article titled “Bag Bans: A Failure-Not Success as Claimed” which evaluates these

[1] Single-use plastic carryout bags are also referred to as “single-use plastic grocery bags” or “thin-film plastic grocery bags” or “lightweight plastic grocery bags”.

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