Legal, Plastic Pollution, Bag Bans
December 17 2015

Closing Thicker Plastic Reusable Bag Loopholes

by Staley Prom

Over the past few months, the Surfrider Foundation's staff and activists have noted an alarming situation: retailers in some cities that have banned single-use plastic bags, including Austin, Chicago, and Honolulu, are going around the intent of those bans – to stop single-use plastic from littering and polluting our environment – by providing shoppers with thicker “reusable” plastic film bags.   

Essentially, the problem is this… Presumably, in order to ensure that bags are durable enough to be reused multiple (100+) times, many ordinances, based on San Francisco’s bag ban (the first in the U.S.), define “reusable bag” such that if it’s plastic, it be at least 2.25 mils thick (a “mil” is one-thousandth of an inch). To be clear, this definition is not in and of itself the problem, but instead, that some ordinances include this definition of reusable bags, but do not require a charge on reusable bags, as San Francisco does, and as Surfrider advocates for.

While San Francisco requires that stores charge at least ten cents for any reusable bag or paper bag, some cities allow giving away thicker “reusable” plastic film shopping bags for free. In those situations, since stores aren’t charging for the bags, there’s no disincentive for getting new “reusable” bags each time people shop. So stores and shoppers are using thicker “reusable” plastic bags in a single-use manner.  We've seen this happening in Honolulu, HI; Chicago, IL; and South Hampton, NY, to name a few.  This clearly contradicts the very purpose of bag bans.

Surfrider is already making moves to help cities amend their bag bans to address this loophole.  For instance, in the northeast, Surfrider staff has been working with the cities of Falmouth and Freeport, Maine to draft strong ordinances that exclude these loopholes, and in Barrington, Rhode Island, we're working to help amend local law to require fees on reusable film plastic bags (for example, check out our letter to the Barrington, RI council here!).  Surfrider chapters can continue to address any loopholes by encouraging cities to require fees for all reusable bags, or amend the definition of allowable “reusable” bags to exclude any film plastic bags.

Surfrider also supports laws that allow for thicker reusable film plastic bags, so long as there’s a required fee, and additional requirements that: (1) bags be made from a percentage of recycled content, (2) information be printed on the bag encouraging reuse and recycling, (3) bags be able to withstand multiple (125+) uses over a lifetime, and (4) a certification process to ensure bag producers comply with all requirements.  For example, SB 270, California’s statewide bag ban (which California will vote on November 2016), includes these requirements on thicker reusable plastic bags, which promote reusability.

Surfrider continues to monitor this issue as we advocate for the strongest possible plastic ban bans around the country.  Surfrider chapters can engage by recommending these solutions in areas where a loophole has been identified.  Eliminating single-use plastic bags is but one part of Surfrider’s Preventing Plastic Pollution initiative.  To learn more, check out Surfrider’s website, or get involved with your local chapter.

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