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Everything You Need to Know About Plastic Bag Bans in the U.S. and its alternative Reusable Tote Bags

Arthur Drake |

Plastic Bag Litigation, Plastic Bag Bans in the U.S. and its alternative Reusable Tote Bags

Plastic bag bans in the United States mark a significant step towards addressing environmental concerns and reducing plastic waste. These bans, adopted by various states and local municipalities, aim to limit the distribution of single-use plastic bags, particularly in retail settings. The rationale behind this move is twofold: to reduce the amount of non-biodegradable waste in landfills and oceans, and to mitigate the harm to wildlife caused by plastic pollution. The specifics of these bans vary from place to place; some impose fees on plastic bags, while others ban them outright. The effectiveness of these bans has been a topic of debate, but they undeniably encourage a shift in consumer behavior towards more sustainable practices. Public awareness and participation are crucial for the success of these initiatives, and educational campaigns often accompany the introduction of these bans to ensure a smoother transition for consumers and businesses alike.

In response to plastic bag bans, reusable tote bags have emerged as a popular and eco-friendly alternative. These bags, made from materials like cotton, jute, or recycled plastics, offer a durable and sustainable option for carrying groceries and other goods. Not only do they help in reducing reliance on single-use plastics, but they also promote a culture of reuse and environmental responsibility. Consumers are increasingly adopting reusable tote bags, recognizing their practicality and the positive environmental impact they have. Businesses are also joining in, with many retailers offering branded tote bags as a way to encourage this shift and align with environmentally conscious practices. The popularity of reusable tote bags reflects a growing awareness and commitment among the public to embrace eco-friendly habits, contributing to a cleaner and more sustainable future.

Government officials throughout the United States have pondered numerous ways to lower the commonness of plastic bags at department and grocery stores and additional types of business locations.

Lowering the use of plastic bags could alleviate damaging impacts to our rivers, oceans, forests, lakes, brooks and streams and the wildlife that live in these areas. It could additionally release the pressures regarding waste management, as well as landfills.

While a few states throughout the U.S. are attempting to implement plastic bag bans (laws), some states have already made it unlawful to use plastic bags. A few states mandate stores to charge fees to deter people from using plastic completely, in hopes of encouraging the use of paper bags, reusable grocery bags, and canvas bags instead. 

There needs to be more done. People are still using a lot of plastic grocery bags today.

Plastic Bags – History

According to (2018), plastic bags were very rare less than fifty years ago. 

The most well-known kind of disposable plastic bags was first manufactured in the late 1800s (Polyethylene) however it was not until the middle of the 1900s that a higher density type of these bags was developed. The development of these bags was done so that bags would be tougher and less costly.

This apparently simple creation changed the way consumers shopped and had unimaginable implications for the world.

Brief History of Plastic Shopping Bags

• Polyethylene – created in 1933
• Higher density polyethylene – created in 1953
• Plastic bags consumers use in our current market – created in 1965
• Dixie bags – created in the 80s
• Kroger and Safeway (two well-known grocery chains) replaced their paper bags with plastic ones – in 1982
After 1982, numerous grocery stores and department stores started to realize that they could save money by buying plastic bags that were cheaper, as well as stronger

Using higher density bags is convenient for consumers, but the damage to the environment, sea life and wildlife, and to landfills is becoming global and is getting out of control. 

There are a few problems resulting from plastic product use, which directly affects human beings. The chief problems are:

• The environment – besides global warming, there are water contamination issues, and plastic bags, straws and other types of plastic products have become one of the biggest environmental problems in the history
• Expense – the expense to clean up and recycle plastic can be costly to consumers (taxpayers)
• Health and Well-Being – plastic is made from materials (synthetic molecules) that could cause serious health problems and dangers to the land and waterways in the U.S.
Learn more here about why we should not use plastic bags here: 

What Does This Mean for the U.S.?

Plastic grocery bags have dominated the world, not only the U.S., because of the requirement for businesses to have less expensive options and for convenient ways to carry products home from stores. Sadly, most of the evolution was out of the hands of each consumer, and the environment and nature are paying the price for the change. 

Now that we comprehend the influence of recycled plastic products usage, it is up to each American to find and utilize changes. 

Certainly, we all want the world to be beautiful and resourceful for future generations. The outcomes of contaminated waterways and over-full landfills and litter will affect our environment for years to come. Unfortunately, if the issues continue, our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren’s livelihood could be at stake.

Why Are Consumers Still Using Plastic Grocery Bags?

Using Plastic Bags

Even after all the heartbreaking stories about wildlife and sea life being injured or dying because of plastic pollution, people continue to use plastic grocery bags instead of reusable shopping bags, paper bags or cotton tote bags.

People have witnessed the destruction:

• A turtle battling to get air because a plastic straw was stuck in the turtle’s nostrils
• A whale that died because plastic grocery bags were entangled in the whale’s stomach

The public is progressively aware of such dangers that plastic products do to sea life and wildlife and the environment. But consumers continue to leave supermarkets and dining places with plastic bags, without giving it another thought. (Smith. Para. 2. (2018))

Why do people still do that?

Research reveals that information is not the only way to eliminate plastic product littering and contamination. Caitie Nigrelli (an environmental social scientist at Sea Grant in Illinois-Indiana) (Smith. (2018)) states that people generally require more incentive or motivation. She also says that the advantages must be, not only tangible, but perceptible and touchable and behaviors and actions must be achievable and within peoples’ capabilities. (Smith. Para. 6. (2018))

As manufacturers produce more plastic products, like grocery bags and plastic straws, and the landfill get even bigger, can societal science assist with controlling the use of plastic? 

The Use of Plastic Shopping Bags and the Environment’s Pollution – a Social Issue

The Environmental Impact of Reusable Grocery Bags

The world seems to be suffocating under endless piles of plastic bags and we need to act as soon as possible to prevent further damage to the environment and ourselves.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in the United States people use over 380 billion plastic bags and wraps each year. In order to produce this amount of plastic bags, the industry requires around 12 million barrels of oil (to which they add water, electricity, and so on). Reed More...

Some experts believe that the use of plastic products is a huge social issue. One aspect that comes to mind is regarding wildlife, birds and sea life – the worlds’ nature – to enjoy and observe -- or possibly food sources for United States’ consumers. (Smith. (2018))

When the environment is in a drought, most people conserve water. So, some might wonder why people do not reduce the use of plastic shopping bags that has a different threat to the environment, however, a threat that is an extremely important one to consider.

One noteworthy obstacle problem is that plastic bags or other plastic products, single-use goods, are nearly impossible to evade. (Smith. (2018))

Environmental activists are looking at social behavior transformation movements to help consumers break the habit.

Models of successful behavior change programs are a familiar part of American culture. There are existing campaigns for other issues already – the “Click it or Ticket” campaign (started in the 90s and promotes wearing seat belts), and there is a campaign known as the “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk”, which has helped eliminate drunk driving (started in the 80s). And, a well-known campaign known as “Smokey the Bear’s timeless credo: Only you can prevent a forest fire” that was created to help people change behaviors as well.

All those campaigns have something in common. Each one uses social promotion philosophies, which combine theories from societal science and commercial promoting to impact actions for the advantage of both the consumer and the public as a group. (Smith. Para. 11. (2018))

The campaigns help consumers follow certain steps to achieve their goals. The initial step is:

• Classify the barriers to behavior transformation

Jill Bartolotta (an Extension Educator at Ohio Sea Grant) (Smith. Para. 13. (2018)) performed a survey, which revealed that the most well-known that keeps individuals from using reusable shopping bags is because they are not using other reusable products at home (like reusable water bottles, for example).

However, it is not only an issue of people forgetting to use reusable alternatives at home. It does not matter, for instance, if someone brings his or her own water bottle with him or her if there is no place to refill the water bottle. And for some individuals, it is a matter of what everyone prefers, or it might be what someone believes in. Some people might believe that using reusable products is unsafe – unsanitary, possibly. (Smith. Para. 14. (2018))

Is it Just a Social Issue? Or is it a Production Issue?

Many people believe the use of plastic bags and straws, etc. is a social issue. Some folks believe the issue lies in the hands of manufacturers.

Interesting thought – the world did not have plastic years ago.

Even though plastics are omnipresent nowadays, they are fairly new to customers and marketplaces. Extensive use of plastic products started when World War II ended. However, plastic manufacturing currently exceeds the production of all other materials (wood, paper, etc.). 

One of the reasons why some people still use plastic shopping bags might be because it is convenient. The products were created to be disposable, single-use goods “that after short-term convenience would be binned as solid waste” (Lennon. Para. 3. (2016)). Thought to be the final symbol of consumerism, it is assessed that between five hundred billion and over a trillion plastic bags are used by consumers, globally, every year. 

Where does all the solid waste go to? Though most of it goes to landfills, unfortunately, millions of the plastic products are tossed onto the ground, on beaches and ocean shores, into woods and along the sides of roadways.

Consumers could make changes and have the power. If enough people came together for the cause, it could be fixed. There are many ways that communities in the U.S. can help save the environment and everybody’s health. A lot of states and cities/towns have started global campaigns. (2019) uses the “Four ‘Rs’ for their campaign:

• Reduce
• Reuse
• Refuse
• Remove
• Recycle
• Rally

( (2019))

Plastic bags recycle reuse

Why is it So Vital to Create Plastic Bag Bans?

• Plastic bags contaminate marine life
• It can take anywhere from 10 years to 1,000 years for the bags to rot/decompose
• Plastic bags are not easy to recycle

Billions of pounds of plastic fragments, which includes grocery bags, are washed out to sea each year. Once the plastic is in the ocean, possibly due to the salty water, the materials break down to smaller pieces and sea creatures/fish eat the plastic. That contaminates the ocean’s fish food chain from the bottom of the sea to the top.

It was the plastics industry that offered recycling as a solution. ( (2019))

Plastic bags and other plastic products might be a huger issue than people realize, especially regarding litter, mainly since plastic trash is global, and such materials might not decompose during our lifetime. The quantity of litter and pollution continues to expand and is horribly dangerous to the environment that gives food to the entire United States. 

This issue not only involves polluting our waters and overfilling landfills. The problem involves our food sources and health as well. Researchers continue to perform studies regarding plastic and whether it could go into meat.

Researchers at UC Davis discovered, in a study they performed, that ¼ of fish distributed, in just one state’s marketplaces (California), contained whole or fragments of plastic in their bellies. Additional research would be necessary to prove whether the chemicals found in materials that manufacturers use to produce plastic could transfer to the portions of fish consumers regularly eat. 

Ecological Claims

Possible Eco-friendly claims typically pertain to direct plastic bag bans with no fees charged for the use of paper, reusable grocery bags or canvas bags. This kind of legal process argues that consumers might merely choose to use cotton tote bags, paper bags, reusable grocery bags and/or other kinds of reusable bags (like thicker, more durable plastic bags, e.g.) while shopping. 

Numerous cities already have these plastic bag bans in place and reusable grocery bags are being sold at many stores throughout the U.S. as well. Some stores refer to the bags as “Bring Your Own Bag (BYOBag)”, to help eliminate these ecological claims. 

Will the Ban Become Federal Law?

According to Cirino (2019), Presently, no federal laws exist regarding plastic bag use. There are examples, though, that serve as helpful models. (Cirion. Para. 6. (2019))

Federal plastic bag bans could be developed by following present state laws that have already been created to get to the bottom of the plastic bag problems with bans on all kinds of plastic products, which include straws. Per Stein (Cirino. (2019)), California made headlines in February of this year after lawmakers suggested that all kinds of plastic products that cannot be completely recycled be banned. (Cirino. Para. 7. (2019))

This kind of law is backed by scientific proof that plastic products, like plastic bags, straws, etc. are challenging because the materials they are made from do not break down in the natural atmosphere and present a hazardous situation for wildlife and possibly human beings. (Cirino. Para 8. (2019))

Could the usage of cotton tote bags, reusable grocery bags, plastic bags and/or canvas bags be forced by law? Why?

Per Stein, her and other members from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) – Surfrider group who visited Washington, DC in January of this year met many times with legislators regarding plastic bag issues. 

One discussion involved the 2018 Save Our Seas Act, which offers funding for federal marine waste management and prevention, and cleanup efforts via NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. Presently, there are proposed bills, and two of the bill’s co-sponsors are already working on getting the bills heard and passed. The two individuals who are working on those bills are Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

In general, Stein states, “we felt the reception was positive – plastic pollution is a topic on the minds of the American public and the congresspersons who represent them” (Cirino. Para.28. (2019)). She continues to say that they are hopeful that the Save Our Seas Act (version 2.0) legislation in the Senate might offer the opportunity to ponder all-inclusive federal tactics to lower plastic contamination/littering. (Cirino. Para. 28. (2019))

What are Some States/Cities Doing to Protect the Environment from Plastic Bag Littering and Contamination?

Many states throughout the U.S. are doing a few great things to help protect their land and waters from contamination and littering. Some locals and stores:

• Only allow consumers to use plastic grocery bags only if there is a plastic bag recycle bin without twenty feet of the entrance and every bag that is collected is recycled 
• Plan cleanup days – using volunteers to clean the land, woods, etc. in towns and cities
• Sell canvas bags and other kinds of reusable grocery bags

Interesting Facts:

• Per Waste Management, just one percent of plastic bags are brought in for recycling, which means that the average household recycles about fifteen bags per year and the other bags end up in a landfill
• An average U.S. household uses approximately fifteen hundred plastic grocery bags annually

Have Lawsuits Occurred Against Plastic Bag Ban Campaigns?

Plastic Bag Litigation, Plastic Bag Bans

There have been extremely impactful campaigns by plastic manufacturers against activities attempting to lower the use of or ban plastic grocery bags across the entire United States. The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents large corporations like Chevron, Shell, Dow Chemical, and ExxonMobil and works diligently to safeguard the plastic industry’s profits and marketplace share. 

Lawsuits against plastic bag laws are generally brought by plastic bag manufacturing industry groups, and to a lesser extent retailer associations. Most of this litigation occurred in California at the local level in the years leading up to California's statewide bag law.

The ACC spends a lot of money on politicization. They fight for keeping plastic in the market by way of TV commercials, radio ads, and the ACC has tried to bring lawsuits against individuals or groups that tried to ban the use of plastic grocery bags, plastic straws, etc. The ACC believes that paper products cause more damage to the environment than plastic goods do.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has its own campaigns to save plastic bags, and the organization’s “Plastic Bags Lobby” (Lights. (n.d.)) has a substantial impact on political choices. They have continued to be successful in preventing charges for plastic grocery bags from being announced across the U.S.
(Lights. Paragraphs 12-13. (n.d.))

When Did Plastic Bag Bans Start?

The first area in the U.S. that began plastic bag debates was the District of Columbia. That occurred in 2009 when the DOC enacted laws necessitating all companies that sold food or alcoholic bottled/canned beverages to add a five-cent fee for each plastic or paper bag each consumer carried out.

Prominent Cities and/or Counties with Plastic Bag Bans and Fees:

• Cities that have bans in place:
o Chicago
o Boston
o San Francisco
o Boston
o Seattle
o Los Angeles

• Cities that have plastic bag bans and bag fees:
o New York
o Montgomery County, Maryland
o Boulder, Colorado
o Portland, Maine
o Washington, DC

Additional Interesting Facts

Each state has an on-going pursuit regarding legislation pertaining to packaging, recycling, labeling, and reusing plastic bags. Maine was the first state to pass legislation necessitating recycling efforts at local stores (grocery and department stores). That law stated that stores could not allow customers to use plastic grocery bags unless the consumers had a location to recycle each bag. After Maine passed that law, other states started to do the same thing – Rhode Island, California, New York and Delaware – and the DOC.

State legislators have presented to the public almost 100 bills in 2019 alone, all pertaining to plastic bags. Most of the bills would ban plastic shopping bags or charge a fee for each bag. ( (2019))

The following maps show which states in the U.S. already had enacted plastic bag bans by the year 2019.

(Image Title: States with Enacted Plastic Bag Legislation. Retrieved on May 20, 2019 from

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