San Diego Bans Reusable Plastic Bags

Upon leaving a grocery store, everyone’s experience is usually the same.  The cashier unenthusiastically asks you how your day is followed by a high school age kid asking “would you like paper or plastic?”.  This common narrative, however, is changing.  As of July 2016, San Diego has become one of the last major cities in California to ban single-use plastic grocery bags at large grocery stores, pharmacies, and corner markets.  Even more recently, California’s Proposition 67 passed which means that plastic bags will be banned across the entire state.  California is the first state to have such a ban.  Every year, Americans throw away 100 billion (New bans on plastic bags may help protect marine life) plastic bags and each family takes home about 1,500 bags (NRDC). In San Diego alone, 700 million carryout plastic bags are distributed at grocery, liquor, and convenience stores annually (Smith).  About 3 percent of those 700 million plastic bags are actually recycled, according to the city of San Diego (Smith).  The intent of this law is to eliminate plastic checkout bag waste which would usually accumulate in storm drains, rivers, canyons, and beaches.  Another goal of the ordinance is to encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags to eliminate waste.  Similar to other plastic-bag bans in the state, the policy will require costumers to pay 10 cents per paper bag they use at checkout. The other, more favorable, option is to have costumers purchase reusable bags and use them when checking out.  In 2007, San Francisco became the first city to ban plastic bags in the country.  Five years later, the city modified the ordinance to include all retail stores and charge 10 cents per checkout bag in 2012 (Plastic Bags: Local Ordinances).  San Diego was the 151st city covered by the ordinance.

The San Diego City Council voted on this measure with an outcome of 6-3, in favor of banning plastic grocery bags.  This policy change was established just months before a referendum vote in the general election deciding whether or not to uphold a state-wide ban on plastic checkout bags (Smith).  It could be argued that a hidden agenda behind pushing this law so close to the election is that it will show people living in San Diego that life without single-use plastic bags is not that inconvenient, which may have helped pass proposition 67.

This law was recently instated in San Diego, therefore, there have been no court decisions that have affected the implementation in America’s Finest City.  However, one example of a court decision concerning this law in another county in California is Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach.  The Plaintiff, an unincorporated association called Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, asserts that the City of Manhattan Beach needed to provide an environmental impact report to determine whether the ordinance would have a profound effect on bettering the environment.  The coalition argues that eliminating the use of plastic bags would increase the use of paper bags.  The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition believes that an increased use in paper bags would actually be worse for the environment (Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach).  The Supreme Court of California ultimately decided to uphold the city of Manhattan Beach’s ordinance on the basis of a negative declaration.  After this case, however, the city of Manhattan Beach modified the ordinance a year later in 2012, and again in 2014.  In 2012, the council allowed plastic bags to be used at restaurants for take-out as they declassified restaurants as vendors.  In 2014, they reversed that again and established restaurants as vendors, requiring them to cease providing plastic bags to customers.  Another outcome of this case is that the 2014 modification clearly states that “there is no possibility that the adoption of this ordinance will have a significant effect on the environment” (Ordinance NO. 14-0004).  This proves that, although banning plastic bags in this small city will have little environmental effects, paper bags are no worse that plastic.  Plastic bags, however, create more pollution where they are used.  Paper bags, on the other hand, biodegrade faster than plastic but are made in ways that are not environmentally friendly.  In order to make this ordinance and the now state-wide ordinance more effective, I believe people should be pushed harder to use reusable bags.  In order to do this, paper bags should be limited to 2 bags per person along with a steady price increase staring from 10 cents.  In addition to this, using reusable bags should incentivized with discounts which could be funded by the money that people spend on paper bags.  The California Supreme Court case of Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach exposed a major flaw in the way that the bag on plastic bags is implemented.  Although it is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Some proponents to this law are “the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego County chapter and San Diego Coastkeeper,” as well as, “business-minded groups such as the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Equinox Project” (Smith).  Opponents to the law involve the plastics industry, including The American Progressive Bag Alliance.  Their goal is to overturn the California statewide ban on such products which was introduced in 2014, and passed in 2016.  The American Progressive Bag Alliance argues that this ban imposes a tax on shoppers and is not an effective way to fight pollution.  People who disagree with the law may argue that the increased use of paper bags will create an entirely new environmental problem.  They also may argue that charging customers 10 cents per bag is not an effective way to get them to bring reusable bags and may also place a heavier burden on low income people who cannot afford to buy reusable bags.  With these arguments, opponents to the law may eventually try to reform the law, or repeal it all together.  However, these claims are faulty and largely based on myths.  First, although reusable bags require more materials and energy to make than plastic bags, if reused they become better for the environment than plastic bags.  According to Shauna Theel and Denise Robbins, authors of the article entitled “California’s Plastic Bag Ban: Myths and Facts”, paper bags reused 3 times, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bags reused 4 times, and woven polypropylene (PP) bags used 11 times are more environmentally friendly than a single-use plastic bag (Theel, Robbins).  This shows that reusable bags have a greater upside to be good for the environment than plastic bags.  Next, the 10 cent bag charge has worked very well in other counties that have a ban on plastic bags.  For example, Environmental Services Department of San Jose, the third largest city in California, has noted an 89 percent reduction of plastic bag litter in storm drains, 60 percent in creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in streets and neighborhoods (Theel, Robbins).  This improvement came within the first year of the ban. Also, according to the Department of Energy and Environment website, the department “partners with a number of grocery and drug stores, District Government agencies, Council offices, and various community service organizations to give away tens of thousands of bags to low-income and senior District residents” (Department of Energy & Environment) making the argument that low income people will be harmed by this charge irrelevant.

Although it is clear that the ban on single use plastic bags has made an impact on plastic litter in San Jose, San Francisco’s last litter data report in 2009 showed no significant change in the first 2 years of enforcement (Gabrielson).  However, San Francisco didn’t ban plastic bags at all retailers until 2012 (Gabrielson) so it is fair to assume that this was the reason for little to no change.  In San Diego, the ban will be enforced at all retailers.  Smaller chains, however, have a year-long grace period to make the transition, whereas larger chains have only 6 months.  The intent of this ban is to regulate the use of plastic grocery bags and paper bags while promoting the use of reusable bags and recyclable bags.  Through these regulations, the city of San Diego’s goal is to “protect the public health, safety, and welfare of its citizens” (Plastic Bag Ordinance, San Diego) along with local fish and wildlife.


Bag Law FAQs. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2016, from Department of Energy & Environment website:

Gabrielsen, P. (2013, June 16). A mixed bag: Are California’s bans on plastic bags working? Retrieved November 4, 2016, from Santa Cruz Sentinel website: article/ZZ/20130616/NEWS/130617908

New bans on plastic bags may help protect marine life. (2016, November 4). Retrieved November 4, 2016, from Worldwatch Institute website:

NRDC Lauds Passage of New York City Council Legislation Requiring Groceries, Retailers to Provide Plastic Bag Recycling for Consumers. (2008, January 9). Retrieved November 4, 2016, from Natural Resources Defense Council website:

Ordinance NO. 14-0004. (2014). Retrieved December 4, 2016, from

Plastic Bags: Local Ordinances. (2015). Retrieved September 23, 2016, from Californians       Against Waste website:

[Plastic Bag Ordinance]. (n.d.). Retrieved from                                               

Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. City of Manhattan Beach. (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2016, from RMM website:

Smith, J. E. (2016, July 19). San Diego approves ban on plastic bags. San Diego Union Tribune.

Theel, S., & Robbins, D. (2014, October 8). California’s Plastic Bag Ban: Myths and Facts. Retrieved November 4, 2016, from Media Matters for America website:


Trash, including plenty of plastic bags, overflows from bins at Belmont Park in Mission Beach on July 5, Photo by Peggy Peattie

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