Plastic Bag Policies in San Francisco and DC, Part 1 of 3: Background

In an analysis that will come in three parts, I’m going to take a look at the implementation of policies intended to curb community litter levels by either banning the distribution of plastic carrier bags in major grocery stores (the policy of San Francisco, California, adopted in 2007) or placing a small fee on every bag, regardless of composition material, distributed by any merchant who sells any kind of edible product (as was enacted in Washington, D.C. in 2010). After briefly recounting the international background of the issue, I’ll examine the causal theory and implementation method of each approach, highlighting the successes and failures of each. In the second part, I find that in San Francisco, the policy missed its intended mark (and in fact the proportion of street litter from plastic bags went up), while the bag fee imposed in D.C. drastically reduced the accumulation of new garbage in the Anacostia River while simultaneously raising the funds to clean up the existing litter.

The final part of this analysis contains recommendations for communities wishing to implement policies to diminish plastic bag litter in their own jurisdictions, based on my assessment of these differing implementation plans.


Various policies to reduce plastic bag litter in community environments have been adopted and even encoded in law across the world. There is a growing environmental concern about the staggering amount of plastic bags consumed per annum, each of which generally turns into a piece of litter which not only are a blight on the landscape of a community but which also pose a serious threat to the health of citizens, wildlife, and surrounding bodies of water.

Since 2002 when Ireland became the first country to enact a per-bag tax on disposable carrier sacks, several countries and local communities have followed suit, adopting either a bag tax or an outright ban on the flimsy plastic carrier bags which have become so ubiquitous since the widespread adoption of their use in the last 1970s. In 2007, San Francisco, CA became the first city in the US to ban these plastic bags (though it only banned non-compostable bags and only at major retail chains and pharmacies; paper bags and those made from compostable plastic were still allowed, and the restrictions did not apply to small or local stores). In January of 2010, Washington, D.C. became the first US jurisdiction to impose a per-bag fee, a charge of five cents on each of any type of disposable carrier sack (including paper) taken by a consumer at the end of a purchase. These policies had the same goal but differing implementation approaches and very different actual outcomes, as we will see below.

Stakeholders (applies to both cities)

  • Local and state government: no states have yet attempted implementation of a state-wide bag ban or fee, but state governments (like in California) have been involved in legislation to reduce litter, especially that from plastic bags
  • Stores, merchants, and retailers: if bag bans are imposed, merchants are required to provide alternatives to plastic (and sometimes paper) bags, which are almost always more expensive
  • Plastic bag manufacturers: clearly have a vested interest in maintaining their production levels and sales; frequently attempt to discredit and/or block plastic bag bans
  • Consumers: expected to carry the burden of bringing their own bags or paying a fee
  • American Chemistry Council (ACC): the trade group of the plastics industry, which frequently acts in support of plastic bag manufacturers by sponsoring local campaigns against bans or fees
  • Environmental organizations and activists: these groups are largely responsible for raising awareness of the problem of plastic bag litter (usually through research and publication of reports); they also undertake the lobbying of politicians and bureaucrats required to introduce and advance legislation against plastic bags

Policy Formulation

The justifications for bag bans are quite clear and generally consistent across localities: plastic bags are difficult (and often impossible) to recycle; these bags are lightweight and thrown away or cast aside, at which point they frequently take to the air and end up as litter; this litter is a visual blight on a community and can actually cause serious risk to the health of the public and wildlife. (Plastic bags can and often do clog sewers and other drainage systems during heavy rains, which can cause devastating flooding. They also frequently end up being ingested by wild animals of all species (land and water, mammal and reptilian), causing death and even distinction.) However, the overwhelming ubiquity of plastic bags makes them a particularly difficult issue to tackle. Practically every person in the country, upon making a retail purchase, places that purchase in a plastic bag. The estimated annual consumption of plastic bags in the US is approximately 100 billion bags per year. Not only are there vested and powerful industrial interests focused on keeping plastic bags as the norm in grocery and other retail stores, but there is some degree of consumer backlash against the responsibility of bringing your own bags or the “big government” imposition of a fee on bags. So while the justifications for behavior change are valid, the resistance to change is strong.

Development of Justifications and Objectives

Frequently, the impetus for change within a county or municipality (so far, the only political/geographic region implementing bag bans or fees in the US) comes from research and reporting by local government or environmentally-conscious nonprofit organizations. In San Francisco in 2005, the city’s Department of the Environment contracted a report on local plastic bag usage, finding that approximately 180 million plastic bags were being used annually just within San Francisco. Two years later, the city imposed a ban of “traditional” plastic shopping bags on all major grocery retailers in the city. In Washington, D.C., efforts to reduce litter in the Anacostia River led to a report issued in 2008; the “Anacostia Watershed Trash Reduction Plan” found that the vast majority of litter in the river was from plastic bags. The next year, in almost direct response to this finding, the city passed the “Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act”, which instituted a 5 cent fee on every plastic or paper bag consumed at any store that sells food or alcohol.

The objective in both cases is clear: reduce the impact of plastic bag litter on the local environment. However, the policy adopted in these two cases is different: while San Francisco adopted a ban on only single-use, non-compostable plastic bags, Washington instituted a fee for every disposable bag taken on a trip to a grocery store. In other jurisdictions across the country, the decision to ban plastic bags versus instituting a per-bag fee has been a frequent matter of some debate. A considerable portion of the public feels that either situation is an imposition on consumers, and plastic bag manufacturers have rallied and lobbied against both efforts to change consumer behavior.

Jane Patton, Plastic Pollution Coalition

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