David Lewis remembers what it was like a few years ago immediately after the city of San Jose, California, passed a law prohibiting supermarkets and other stores from giving shoppers plastic bags for their purchases. Some vocal residents argued that getting a plastic bag at the grocery store was their god-given right. Some even threatened to vote out local officials who supported the ban.
“What we found was there were a few loud people who were very anxious about this change,” said Lewis, executive director of the environmental group Save the Bay. “But we really found no significant problem among consumers in adjusting.”
Lewis said that within about a week, most San Jose residents were bringing reusable bags when they shopped.
“The revolution didn’t come, nobody was storming the grocery stores, there were no boycotts,” Lewis said.
The “ban the bag” movement marked its first major victory in 2007 when San Francisco banned single-use carryout bags in grocery stores. Since then, bans have been imposed in cities or counties in 20 states, and California approved a statewide ban last year.
Now Coral Gables is set to become the first city in Florida to outlaw the bags. The city commission in March gave preliminary approval to an ordinance banning plastic bags in stores and certain other uses. A final vote is scheduled May 9.
The proposal has been met with some skepticism from business owners and residents but seems to have more supporters than critics.
“I‘m actually in favor of using our reusable bags over plastic bags,” said Jason Rogers, a Coral Gables resident. “To me, the goal is sustainability and to improve the environment.”
He said he and his wife, Brooke, always make sure to keep reusable bags in their car.
At a few Publix locations on a recent afternoon in the Gables, most shoppers walked out with plastic bags, but many brought recyclable bags.
“I think if people were forced to bring [recyclable bags], it would be a good thing. I usually tell them to give me as few bags as possible,” shopper Edith Patterson said.
The “ban the bag” campaigns are often championed by environmentalists and sustainability activists who argue that the products create litter, clog drainage systems, fill up landfills and too often find their way into waterways. Activists say that sea turtles, which often can’t differentiate between a bag and a jellyfish, choke on them, and fish and sea birds are poisoned by eating them. And they argue that the bags, which are a petroleum product, waste a valuable resource.
Activists often face opposition from businesses, large retailers and the plastic industry. Those groups defend the bags and say they are easier to recycle than environmentalists claim and cheaper to produce than paper bags. They argue that shoppers should be able to make their own choices.
In municipalities that have adopted restrictions on plastic bags, the laws differ, but most have outright bans, bans that include taxes on alternative bags, or just bag taxes. Many also focus specifically on grocery and convenience stores and pharmacies while excluding restaurants.
California’s statewide ban, which served as a basis for the Coral Gables ban, restricts single-use bags and requires retailers to provide reusable bags or paper bags at a cost of at least 10 cents. The Gables ban gives retailers the option of providing paper bags for free.
When Washington, D.C., approved a 5-cent fee per bag for paper and plastic bags a few years ago, it was met with some hesitation and skepticism from consumers who felt they shouldn’t have to pay. Lewis, of Save the Bay, said that response was just a side effect of being made aware of the cost instead of having it built into the price of groceries.
“Behavior is far more affected by cost than it should be,” Lewis said. “People who are spending hundreds of dollars on groceries would not spend the extra nickel specifically because they were being asked.”
In Austin, a study found that even with an all-out ban on single-use carryout bags, alternatives like thicker reusable plastic bags and paper bags were filling landfills just like their flimsier counterparts.
A similar situation emerged in Chicago after the city approved a ban in 2015. The ban prohibited single-use carryout bags and allowed retailers to give out paper bags, reusable plastic bags and compostable bags for free.
Jordan Parker, director of the Bring Your Bag Chicago group, said that many reusable plastic bags were discarded just like their thinner counterparts and had an even more adverse impact on the environment because of their thickness.
“It was just more plastic in our landfills and our waste stream and our environment,” Parker said. “For a year and a half, we actually made the environmental problem worse.”
Last year, the city approved a seven-cent bag tax for both plastic and paper bags and repealed the initial ban. Parker said the plan isn’t perfect but that it worked for retailers, environmentalists and the city government.
She said the issue for retailers was the higher cost per bag, anywhere from four to 13 cents more depending on the bag. Meanwhile, environmentalists were seeing negative environmental impacts and city leaders lamented the lack of potential revenue from a tax that other cities were receiving.
“I think it was a really good example of three interest groups coming together and finding common ground,” Parker said.
Coral Gables Commissioner Vince Lago, sponsor of the ordinance to ban bags, thinks that common ground can be found in the city’s plan but says he isn’t willing to substitute a tax on bags for an all-out ban.
“I’m not a big proponent of over-taxation. It allows people and entities to skirt the issue,” Lago said.
He insists that his push for the ban is not a vendetta against the products or the petroleum industry but that it’s about finding alternatives that are easier to recycle.
“We need to come to the agreement that we need to find a more sustainable measure,” Lago said.
Sustainability and environmental concerns have driven the call for bans in many cases. Advocates of the bans say that while they recognize the cost for businesses, they think the potential for reducing bags in waterways and landfills is more important than companies having to invest in more recyclable bags.
“Business owners may feel assaulted [by the ban], but plastic bags have been assaulting our environment and killing our protected wildlife and polluting our oceans for decades,” Marilu Flores, vice chair of the Miami chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, said at the commission meeting where the Coral Gables ban was first approved.
David Doebler, a Miami Beach resident and creator of VolunteerCleanup.org , said that on his cleanups of shorelines, plastic bags are one of the most picked-up items.
He thinks that a lot of inland cities and communities in Florida might not recognize the issue in the same way that coastal communities do.
“We really need to start thinking about how we use resources and how we protect the ocean and the environment,” Doebler said. “A lot of people think [the ban] is a hippie, tree-hugger, feel-good thing, and it’s actually affecting our marine life and our tourism industry.”
In San Jose, Lewis said that the city’s ban resulted in an 89 percent reduction in bag litter in the city’s storm drains and a 69 percent decrease in creeks.
Opponents of bans
The main challengers of many of these bans are retail groups and groups representing plastic manufacturers.
In fact, the spark for the plastic bag ban in Coral Gables was a recent court victory in a case with the Florida Retail Federation. The federation sued the city last July after the commission approved a ban that focused solely on Styrofoam products, such as take-out containers. Miami-Dade Circuit Court upheld the ban, and the federation appealed to the Third District Court of Appeal, where the case is still pending.
Across the state, local governments are pre-empted from regulating plastic bags. A state statute required the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct a study by Feb. 1, 2010, on the need for new or modified regulation of containers, wrappings and disposable plastic bags. It also prohibited municipalities from regulating those products until the report’s recommendations were approved.
“The Legislature was given the report in 2010 and, to date, none of the recommendations contained therein have been adopted,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto wrote in his ruling in the Styrofoam case.
Cueto ruled, in response to the federation’s argument that the plastic bag statute pre-empted the Gables ban, that the previous lack of action put local municipalities in an “indefinite limbo.” Citing the judge’s ruling, the Gables chose to move forward with the plastic bag ban.
Representatives in the plastic industry argue that bans threaten manufacturing jobs and lead to higher costs for consumers. They also say that the consumers reuse plastic bags for various reasons, such as picking up trash or taking lunch to work.
The bag alliance “believes that consumers should be able to choose which bags are best for them and their families. We have seen in communities across the nation that bag bans and taxes result in many unintended, negative consequences,” Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, said in an email.
The alliance also argues that plastic bags, by weight, make up less than one percent of both the U.S. municipal solid waste stream and litter.
But some large retailers have independently taken steps to reduce the use of plastic bags. In 2008, Walmart set out to reduce plastic bag use and began selling reusable bags at the checkout counter. By 2013, the company said, it had reduced plastic bag waste by more than 38 percent, a reduction of 10 billion bags annually.
Target offers a five-cent discount per bag for anyone who brings in recyclable bags. The company says that customers have used more than 190 million reusable bags instead of paper or plastic.
Publix, a member of the Florida Retail Federation, says it encourages customers and employees to recycle plastic bags and that stores are given plastic bag reduction goals, but the chain has argued against regulation of plastic bags.
“Florida has hundreds of municipalities that regulate and set the laws for their city or county. It would be difficult to navigate the various laws and restrictions given the wide footprint we cover in Florida,” Nicole Krauss, a Publix spokeswoman, said in an email. “It would also mean prohibiting our customers’ right to choose what method of packaging they prefer.”
Ultimately, as Coral Gables prepares to enforce its ban, and proposals for pilot programs in smaller, coastal communities make their way through the Florida Legislature, activists like Parker say that educating hesitant residents and consumers will be key.
Coral Gables plans a six-month grace period after the ban is approved to do additional educational campaigns.
“Cities and municipalities need to know that there are going to be a few months of resistance and complaining, and then people just kind of get it and they adapt,” Parker said.