Trashed plans: California bag ban undermined by loophole in law that opened door for new plastic container

California’s law prohibiting single-use plastic bags has backfired in the state due to a loophole in the legislature permitting reusable bags that still contain large amounts of plastic. 

The 2014 bill, known as SB 270, was supposed to curb the state’s plastic consumption but instead dramatically increased it due to the law allowing reusable bags, which are made with HDPE, a thicker, heavier plastic than the makeup of the banned plastic bags, the Los Angeles Times reported. The year the law was approved, there was 157,385 tons of plastic bag waste, and in 2022, it had escalated by 47% with 231,072 tons of plastic bag waste, according to a report from CALPIRG, a public interest advocacy group. 

“Basically what happened is that plastic bag companies invented these thicker plastic bags that technically meet that definition of reusable but are clearly not being reused and don’t look like reusable bags and which just circumvent the law’s intent,” said Jenn Engstrom, the organization’s state director. 

To remedy the loophole, California lawmakers are seeking to pass legislation that would outlaw the reusable bags typically sold at store checkout lines for 10 cents, the outlet reported. Engstrom told the outlet that the new law will have to reset the definition of reusable bags. 

The director of Californians Against Waste, Mark Murray, told the Los Angeles Times that the bags were made of 20% recyclable material, but manufacturers assured they could be recycled at the end of their lifespan. 

“It was a conscious decision to create a pathway for a type of reusable bag that barely existed,” Murray said. “It was just emerging in the marketplace, but it happened to be made by a couple of California companies … which the manufacturers claimed they could certify as being reusable.”

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In 2022 Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) signed a bill into law in an effort to phase out plastic consumption. The bill requires that by the beginning of 2028, 30% of plastic items sold should be recyclable and by 2032, 65% should be recyclable.

New Jersey, who followed in California’s single-use plastic bag ban, has also been grappling with its own rapidly increasing plastic bag waste since it was outlawed in 2022, with a study last month revealing that in addition to increasing heavy-plastic reusable bags, it caused a 500% increase from 2015 in greenhouse gas emissions.

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