Plastic Bans in the USA

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As I was taking out my recycling, I realized how much plastic I use. My mind wandered to plastic bans, and I realized how little I knew about the subject. How do they come to be? How are they enforced? Are they effective? Here is what I gathered in my search for plastic ban knowledge.  

 Facts on single-use plastic-

• Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which requires 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture.

•Waste management estimates that each year we use 4 trillion plastic bags worldwide. 

•It only takes about 14 plastic bags for the equivalent of the gas required to drive one mile.

• The average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic bags a year.

• According to Waste Management, only one percent of plastic bags are recycled. That means that the average family only recycles 15 bags a year; the rest end up in landfills or as litter.

•1,000,000 marine animals are killed by plastic bags annually.

• It takes over 500 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Unfortunately, the bags don't break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.

What is a "Plastic Ban"? A plastic ban is a law or tax that has been implemented by a legislative body. The goal of this legislation is to reduce the amount of plastic waste in a specific community. Laws tend to be specific. Most plastic bans in the USA are focused on single-use plastic bags. 

Who Is responsible for plastic bans? YOU ARE! The democratically elected leaders we have put into office are responsible for most plastic bans. Be it on a municipal, state, or federal level. Our elected officials are the ones who bring about these bans. Mayors, city council members, federal and state senators and representatives all play a role in passing any plastic ban. If you are passionate about this topic one way or another, make sure you are registered to vote and you do! 

Legislation for plastic banusually comes from two entities. A city passes a law, or the state does. If a city enacts a plastic ban, only the citizens and businesses in that city are obligated to comply. If a state passes a ban, every city, county, and citizen in the state is obligated to comply. Keep in mind, when it comes to laws, federal laws trump state laws, state laws trump city ordinances. A city cannot pass a plastic ban if it contradicts an already existing state law, and this can create problems for progressive cities trying to make a difference. State laws that inhibit cities from moving forward with plastic bans are called Preemptive Laws. 

What is a preemptive law?  Preemptive laws, pushed by plastic industry lobbyists, create a legislative obstacle course where statewide laws trump local laws, preventing local ordinances from passing their own plastics bans, even if they wanted to. Such is the tumultuous world of plastic legislation in the United States. 

States that have Passed Plastic Bans:

  • • California
  • • Connecticut
  • • Delaware
  • • Hawaii
  • • Maine
  • • New York
  • • Oregon
  • • Vermont 

Notable Cities that have Passed Plastic Bans and Fees: 

  • • Boston, MA 
  • • Chicago, IL 
  • • Los Angeles, CA 
  • • San Francisco, CA 
  • • Seattle, WA 
  • • Boulder, CO
  • • Montgomery County, MD 
  • • New York, NY 
  • • Portland, ME 
  • • Washington, D.C.  

    Are there strategies Governments can use other than full-blown bans on plastic? 

    Yes! Many cities and states that don’t have bans have imposed taxes for single-use plastic bags. This is a way for a city or state to restrict single-use plastic use without having to jump through the hoops needed to pass a full-fledged legislative ban. 

    Taxes on single-use plastic bags incentivize consumers to pursue alternatives. On top of reducing plastic bag waste, the taxes can help raise funds that can be put towards educational programs and other good projects.  

    While they may seem like half measures, bag fees and taxes have proven to be incredibly effective in reducing the use of single-use plastic bags

    Are Plastic Bans effective locally?

    • In Aspen, CO, there has been a ban on plastic bags and a 20-cent fee on paper bags since 2012. In 2016, a supermarket study of around 1600 customers showed around 15% of customers purchased paper bags - all other customers used no bags or reusable bags.

    •After the implementation of a 7-cent fee in Chicago, IL, the number of plastic bags used at grocery stores was cut in half.

    •A University of California, Berkeley study looked at bag use before and after a plastic bag ban and 5-10 cent paper bag fee in Richmond, CA. After the ordinance was implemented, 60% of people brought reusable bags to national chain stores. 

    •After implementing plastic bag fees in Washington, D.C., 80% of residents reported using fewer bags each week and more than three-quarters of businesses reported  providing fewer bags to customers.

    •Portland City Council adopted an ordinance to promote reusable shopping bags and reduce the use of single-use plastic checkout bags. Reusable checkout bag use increased 304 percent, and highly recycled paper checkout bag use increased 491 percent.

    Are Plastic Bans effective on a national level?

    •Since England's implementation of the single-use plastic carrier bag fee in 2015, the average number of bags used per person per year has decreased from 140 in 2014 to 10 in 2018. This represents a 90% reduction in single-use plastic bag usage since the first implementation.

    •On January 1st 2017, Israel introduced legislation that required large supermarket chains to charge customers for each plastic bag. One year after the law's introduction, Israel has seen an 80% reduction in overall plastic bag usage and has halved the number of plastic bags found at sea.

    •In 2016, a ban on free plastic bags was enacted in the Netherlands. A year after the ban, there was a 71% decrease in plastic bag usage.

    • In 2011, Malaysia implemented a 6 cent fee on plastic bags. After this, nearly 50% of the population either brought their own reusable bags or did not take a bag at all when grocery shopping.


    The Idea of legally obligating someone to be environmentally friendly is a controversial concept. American’s love the idea of freedom and free will. We do know that many individuals have not taken the initiative needed to mitigate the devastating onslaught single use plastics have had oour environment. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water. Is it okay to limit and regulate a citizen's freedoms in order to save the planet?


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