"This is a much-needed testament and historical document from one of the great environmentalists of our time.” —Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor, Harvard University, on Lester Brown's memoir Breaking New Ground.
With the signing of a plastic bag ban in California on September 30, 2014, the number of Americans who will be affected by anti-bag legislation by 2015 climbed to 49 million. California is the first state to ban the bag. Nationwide more than 150 cities and counties are implementing bans or fees in attempts to reduce the estimated 100 billion plastic bags used in the United States each year.
Americans use on average nearly one plastic bag each day, taking something made from fossil fuels formed over millions of years and generally using it for mere minutes before throwing it away. The energy required to make 12 plastic bags could drive a car a mile. While plastic bags are recyclable, the vast majority never make it that far. Instead they end up in landfills or blow out of trash bins or garbage trucks—clogging storm drains, getting snagged in trees, or littering streams, lakes, and beaches. In nature, plastic breaks into smaller pieces, but it never fully disappears. Plastic refuse poses dangers to wildlife and to humans as chemicals leaching from discarded plastic enter water supplies and travel up the food chain.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags. By 2014, when a ban in Los Angeles went into effect, nearly a third of Californians were covered under municipal or county plastic bag bans. Other sizable U.S. cities banning the bag include Chicago, Austin, Seattle, and Portland in Oregon. County bans in Hawaii cover almost the entire state.
Washington, D.C., is among a smaller group of U.S. cities taking an alternate route in an effort to limit single-use bags: a 5¢ fee per bag has been applied at the checkout counter since 2010. Dallas is following suit with a fee going into effect in January 2015.
In less than 30 years, plastic grocery bags have moved quickly from novelty to entitlement. But the throwaway-and-forget mentality that allowed these bags to proliferate has proved a liability, wasting resources and marring landscapes. As the list of places working to scrap the bag expands, both in the United States and around the world, this could be the beginning of the end for the single-use plastic bag.
To read more about U.S. cities taking action against the plastic bags, see “Plastic Bag Bans Spreading in the United States,” along with a timeline illustrating “A Short History of the Plastic Bag.” Global action to limit plastic bags is discussed in “The Downfall of the Plastic Bag.”
|A Short History of the Plastic Bag: Selected Dates of Note in the United States and Internationally|
|1933||Polyethylene is discovered by scientists at Imperial Chemical Industries, a British company.|
|1950||Total global plastics production stands at less than 2 million metric tons.|
|1965||Sten Thulin’s 1962 invention of the T-shirt bag, another name for the common single-use plastic shopping bag, is patented by Swedish company Celloplast.|
|1976||Mobil Oil introduces the plastic bag to the United States. To recognize the U.S. Bicentennial, the bag’s designs are in red, white, and blue.|
|1982||Safeway and Kroger, two of the biggest U.S. grocery chains, start to switch from paper to plastic bags.|
|1986||Plastic bags already account for over 80 percent of the market in much of Europe, with paper holding on to the remainder. In the United States, the percentages are reversed.|
|June 1986||The half-million-member-strong General Federation of Women’s Clubs starts a U.S.-wide letter writing campaign to grocers raising concerns about the negative environmental effects of plastic bags.|
|Late 1980s||Plastic bag usage estimated to catch up to paper in U.S. groceries.|
|1989||Maine passes a law requiring retailers to only hand out plastic bags if specifically requested; this is replaced in 1991 by a statewide recycling initiative.|
|1990||The small Massachusetts island of Nantucket bans retail plastic bags.|
|1994||Denmark begins taxing retailers for plastic bags.|
|1996||Four of every five grocery bags used in the United States are made of plastic.|
|1997||Captain Charles Moore discovers the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the remote North Pacific, where plastic is estimated to outweigh zooplankton six to one, drawing global attention to the accumulation of plastics in the ocean.|
|2000||Mumbai, India, bans plastic bags, with limited enforcement.|
|2002||Global plastics production tops 200 million metric tons.|
|March 2002||Ireland becomes the first country to tax consumers' use of plastic bags directly.|
|March 2002||Bangladesh becomes the first country to ban plastic bags. Bags had been blamed for exacerbating flooding.|
|2006||Italy begins efforts to pass a national ban on plastic bags; due to industry complaints and legal issues, these efforts are ongoing.|
|April 2007||San Francisco becomes the first U.S. city to ban plastic grocery bags, later expanding to all retailers and restaurants.|
|2007-2008||The American Chemistry Council (ACC) spends $5.7 million on lobbying in California, much of it to oppose regulations on plastic bags.|
|June 2008||China's plastic bag ban takes effect before Beijing hosts the Olympic Games.|
|September 2008||Rwanda passes a national ban on plastic bags.|
|2009||Plastics overtake paper and paperboard to become the number one discarded material in the U.S. waste stream.|
|July 2009||Hong Kong's levy on plastic bags takes effect in chains, large groceries, and other more sizable stores; it is later expanded to all retailers.|
|August 2009||Seattle’s attempt to impose a 20ȼ fee on both paper and plastic bags is defeated before it can take effect by a referendum financed largely by the ACC.|
|December 2009||Madison, Wisconsin, mandates that households recycle plastic bags rather than disposing of them with their trash.|
|January 2010||Washington, D.C., begins requiring all stores that sell food or alcohol to charge 5ȼ for plastic and paper checkout bags.|
|2010||Major bag producer Hilex Poly spends over $1 million in opposition to a proposed statewide plastic bag ban in California.|
|2010||Plastic bags appear in the Guinness World Records as the world’s “most ubiquitous consumer item.”|
|October 2011||In Oregon, Portland's ban on plastic bags at major groceries and certain big-box stores begins.|
|May 2012||Honolulu County approves a plastic bag ban (to go into effect in July 2015), completing a de facto state-wide ban in Hawaii.|
|July 2012||Seattle's plastic bag ban takes effect nearly three years after the first tax attempt failed.|
|March 2013||A bag ban takes effect in Austin, Texas.|
|September-October 2013||During the Ocean Conservancy’s 2013 Coastal Cleanup event, more than 1 million plastic bags were picked up from coasts and waterways around the world.|
|January 2014||Los Angeles becomes the largest U.S. city to ban plastic bags.|
|April 2014||Members of the European Parliament back new rules requiring member countries to cut plastic bag use 50 percent by 2017 and 80 percent by 2019.|
|April 2014||Chicago city council approves plastic bag ban in a 36-10 vote.|
|September 2014||California becomes the first state to pass a plastic bag ban, bringing the total U.S. population covered by anti-plastic bag legislation to over 49 million. More than 150 U.S. cities and counties have enacted plastic bag bans or fees.|
|Source: Compiled by Earth Policy Institute, www.earth-policy.org, 2014.|
Copyright © 2014 Earth Policy Institute