Green Cities California Report on Single Use and Reusable Grocery Bags

This March 2010 report from Green Cities California, Master Environmental Assessment (MEA) of Single Use and Reusable Bags, summarizes existing studies on the environmental impacts of single use plastic, paper, compostable and reusable grocery bags, as well as the impacts of policy options such as fees and bans on bags.

The report aims to provide local governments a one-stop reference about the impacts of restricting the use of single-use grocery bags, or of imposing a fee or other restriction on single-use disposable grocery bags. Local governments can use the report to assess the potential impacts of such ordinances and reduce their need for independent research.

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For more information, go to Green Cities California:

Overview of Findings

  • Single-Use Plastic Bags: Nearly 20 billion single-use high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic grocery bags are used annually in California, and most end up in landfills or as litter. In fact, of the four types of bags considered, plastic bags had the greatest impact on litter.
  • Single-Use Paper Bags: Kraft paper bags are recycled at a significantly higher rate than single-use plastic bags. Still, over its lifetime, a single-use paper bag has significantly larger greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and results in greater atmospheric acidification, water consumption, and ozone production than plastic bags.
  • Single-Use Biodegradable Bags: Although biodegradable bags are thought to be an eco-friendly alternative to HDPE plastic bags, they have greater environmental impacts at manufacture, resulting in more GHG emissions and water consumption than conventional plastic bags. In addition, biodegradable bags may degrade only under composting conditions. Therefore, when littered, they will have a similar impact on aesthetics and marine life as HDPE plastic bags.
  • Reusable Bags: Reusable bags can be made from plastic or cloth and are designed to be used up to hundreds of times. Assuming the bags are reused at least a few times, reusable bags have significantly lower environmental impacts, on a per use basis, than single-use bags. Some of the reviewed LCAs indicate that use of the non-woven plastic reusable bag results in particularly large environmental benefits.
  • Effects of Policy Options on Single-Use Bags: In other regions of the world, fees and bans on bags have resulted in dramatic drops in consumption. For instance, the Irish plastic bag tax immediately resulted in a greater than 90% reduction in use. Due to California law AB2449, no fee program on plastic bags can be introduced. However, bans on single-use plastic bags, as well as fees on other single-use bags, may be implemented to minimize use.