Is the plastic bag on its way out? Paper bags, too? Internationally, a number of countries have banned plastic bags outright or have imposed some form of use tax on plastic and other carryout bags. Several U.S. states are considering state-wide bans. Many counties and cities across the country have some type of local ordinance impacting bags on the books. As a recent example, the city of San Francisco expanded its bag ban ordinance in February 2012, adding a charge of five cents on disposable, single-use checkout bags and extending the mandatory use of recyclable and compostable checkout bags to nearly all retail establishments.
These laws vary widely both in the methods used to discourage bag use and the types of businesses to which the laws apply. For example, some laws apply only to grocery stores or only to food items or only to non-food items while others apply to all retailers and all products. Some laws apply only to plastic bags or only to non-biodegradable bags while others apply to any type of bag. Some laws have statutory standards for recyclability, compostability, and labeling, while others impose reporting requirements, fees, and civil penalties for non-compliance. Federal and state consumer protection laws add an additional layer of complexity, e.g., by setting limitations on the labeling of products (such as bags) that are recyclable or made of recycled content. This multi-jurisdictional approach to a widespread problem has created costly confusion for businesses as they try to determine how best to comply.
Signals indicate that this bag-regulating trend will continue, bringing other municipalities, states, and countries into its fold. As a result, retailers and food establishments that operate in multiple jurisdictions are facing myriad expanded and often-confusing ordinances and laws that impact their businesses. When evaluating plastic bag bans and similar laws, businesses need to identify the relevant laws in the jurisdictions where they conduct business and determine whether and how these laws might impact their operations. When approaching this process, forward-thinking businesses may want to take a holistic approach to the problem: consider not just how to comply with the applicable laws, but also whether there might be potential opportunities for cost-cutting and operational efficiency, brand enhancement, and advances in sustainability.
This Legally Green® Alert highlights some of the provisions we have seen affecting the use of bags, providing a sense as to the widespread variation and type of provisions that might apply to your business. Where laws have been passed but are not yet effective, we have noted the effective date.
France: Bans all plastic bags since 2010. [[Postponed in response to EU Commission analysis.]
China: Bans the production of ultra-thin plastic bags under 0.025 millimeters thick and ordered all supermarkets, department stores, and retail shops to charge a fee for plastic bags.
Hong Kong: Imposes a charge of five Hong Kong cents per plastic bag on approximately 2,000 retail stores, including supermarkets, convenience stores, and personal care products shops. Additionally, a leading supermarket chain, on its own initiative, now charges 20 Hong Kong cents for each biodegradable shopping bag provided.
London [Proposed]: London’s mayor has proposed a plastic bag ban or a five-pence-per-bag charge: however, London would require special dispensation from Parliament to impose such a ban or fee. A 2008 bid by the London Councils for an Act of Parliament that would have provided the requisite power failed to pass.
Indiana [Proposed]: Would impose a fee of 10 cents per bag on all retail merchants who furnish disposable carryout bags and require that all retailers offer reusable carryout bags for sale. Would appropriate 25% of the fees to the state’s Green Industries Fund and 75% of the fees to the Department of Education.
Maryland [Proposed]: Would impose a fee of five cents per disposable carryout bag and require that all retail establishments provide disposable carryout bags that are 100% recyclable and display the phrase “Please Recycle This Bag.” If paper, the bag must have 40% post-consumer recycled content; if plastic, it must be a certain thickness. The fee must be stated separately on all receipts and funds would go to the Chesapeake Bay Trust.
New Jersey [Proposed]: Would impose a fee of 10 cents for paper and plastic bags to be used by the state and requires grocery and retail stores to provide recyclable, compostable, or reusable bags.
New York: Requires retail establishments to provide an at-store recycling program for plastic bags.
Oregon [Proposed]: Would impose a fee of 10 cents for paper bags at all retail establishments, except food service providers, and bans plastic checkout bags.
Pennsylvania [Proposed]: Would impose a fee of two cents on all plastic checkout bags.
Texas [Proposed]: Would mandate the availability of reasonably priced reusable bags at supermarkets and require at-store plastic bag recycling bins.
Vermont [Proposed]: Would impose a fee of 10 cents on all single-use checkout bags.
Virginia [Proposed]: Would impose a fee of five to 20 cents on plastic, single-use bags.
Washington [Proposed]: Would impose a fee of five cents on paper bags, with the retailer retaining the proceeds, and ban nearly all plastic shopping bags. Exemptions would include: shoppers on public food assistance, restaurants and retailers selling hot take-home foods, and bags provided for bulk foods.
Westport, CT: Requires reusable (defined as made of fabric or plastic that is 2.25 millimeters or more thick) or 100% recyclable bags at checkouts for all retailers, including sidewalk sales, farmers markets, flea markets, and restaurants. Fine is $150 per violation.
Montgomery County, MD: Requires retailers to collect a charge of five cents on each paper or plastic carryout bag at the point of sale, pickup, or delivery. One cent of the total goes to the retailers; the remaining four cents go to the county.
Southampton, NY [Proposed]: Would require paper bags be made of 30% or more recycled materials and ban single-use checkout plastic bags that are less than two millimeters thick.
Washington, DC: Imposes a fee of five cents per disposable carryout bag and requires that paper disposable carryout bags be 100% recyclable, contain a minimum of 40% post-consumer recycled content, and state on the bag “Please Recycle This Bag.” Bans disposable non-recyclable carryout plastic bags for distributors, retailers, or wholesalers.
U.S.—West Coast and Beyond
Bisbee, AZ: Voluntary plastic bag reduction ordinance. If the voluntary effort does not succeed in reducing plastic bag use within six months, the city will ban plastic bags at retailers with $1 million or more in sales and impose a fee of five cents on paper bags.
Los Angeles County, CA : Imposes a fee of 10 cents for each paper bag and bans single-use plastic carryout bags for pharmacies, groceries, convenience stores, and food marts.
San Francisco, CA: Effective October 1, 2012, imposes a Green Bag Charge of five cents for disposable, single-use checkout bags and extends the mandatory use of recyclable and compostable checkout bags to all retail and food establishments, with only narrow exceptions.
San Jose, CA: Imposes a fee of 10 cents for each paper bag and bans single-use plastic bags for most merchants (exemptions for restaurants, nonprofits, meat, and produce).
San Luis Obispo, CA: Effective October 2012, imposes a fee of 10 cents for each paper bag and bans plastic shopping bags at most supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, warehouse stores, and other shops.
Sunnyvale, CA: Imposes a fee of 10 cents for each paper bag, which increases to 25 cents in 2014. Ban applies to supermarkets larger than 10,000 square feet, and then extends to all retailers in March 2013, with exemptions for restaurants and nonprofits.
Kauai County, HI: Bans all non-compostable plastic bags for all businesses.
Maui, HI: Bans all plastic bags at the point of sale.
Portland, OR: Imposes a plastic bag ban for major retailers with more than $2 million per year sales and stores with over 10,000 square feet of retail space.
Bellingham, WA: Imposes a fee of five cents for each paper bag, with the money reserved for the retailer. Bans nearly all plastic shopping bags with exemptions for shoppers on public food assistance, restaurants and retailers selling hot take-home foods, and bags provided for bulk foods.
Edmonds, WA: Bans single-use plastic bags for all retail establishments.
Seattle, WA: Imposes a fee of five cents for each paper bag and bans grocers from providing plastic bags at checkout.
Aspen, CO: Effective May 1, 2012, imposes a fee of 20 cents on paper bags and bans plastic bags at grocery stores.
Basalt, CO: Imposes a fee of 20 cents on plastic and paper checkout bags.
Telluride, CO: Imposes a fee of 10 cents on “permitted paper bags” for all businesses and bans all plastic carryout bags (including compostable plastic).
Austin, TX [Proposed]: Would impose a fee of 10 cents per single-use bag, up to one dollar per transaction, followed by a complete ban of single-use bags one to three years after.
- The State of California Bag Recycling Law (AB 2449) prohibits municipalities from allowing grocery stores and pharmacies to charge a fee for plastic bags.
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