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California Bag Ban Overview: Who, What, When, and Where

We’ve banned the bag!  If you are in a city or state where there is bag legislation, you have probably seen a headline like that.  However, even if your city has banned bags, you probably still see plastic bags at check out in many stores.  You might wonder, is that legal?

The truth is, signing a ban into law is simply a first step along a long road to regulating bag use and getting businesses and consumers to comply.  Bans don’t take effect immediately, don’t cover all stores, and don’t ban all kinds of plastic bags.  To make things more confusing, some cities are repealing certain provisions even after a ban is in place, so what is and is not legal keeps shifting.

If you are in the process of choosing reusable bags, or making a bigger investment in bags for a store or business, it’s important for you to know the dirty details—the who, what, and where of bag bans.

Here is a quick overview.

WHO IS REQUIRED TO COMPLY:  Each bag law defines the kinds of retail establishments that are required to comply with the ban or fee.  Here are some of the most common definitions:

  • Large grocery stores: In California, this label applies to grocery stores over 10,000 square feet, and/or with $2 million in annual sales. In the proposed Massachusetts law, large stores are those with 3000 square feet or more.
  • Convenience stores
  • Pharmacies throughout the state.
  • Food service and food carts: These are defined as vendors of food for consumption on or off the premises of the store, generally referring to fast food and food trucks. In New York, there is also a category of Green Carts, which are non-processing mobile food vending units that carries uncut fruits and vegetables for sale. Green carts are covered under the New York fee law.
  • Other retailers including sellers of apparel and general household goods. This is a broad category of general vendors of nearly any kind of merchandise imaginable. While the California bans do not cover general merchandise retailers are targeted at grocery and convenience stores, the fee in New York City as well as in London and other places around the world does apply to bags at point of sale at nearly every kind of retail establishment.

WHAT KIND OF BAGS ARE BANNED: Bag bans need to distinguish between a single-use bag and a reusable bag.  Bag fee laws generally cover all bags and allow any bag to be give so long as the customer pays a separate fee for it.  All bag bans disallow single use carry-out bags.  It is important to note that some plastic film bags are considered “reusable.”  The crux of the law hinges on the definition of a reusable bag.

Most laws have exemptions for bags used for fruits, vegetables, meats, individual product packaging, or prescription medicines that are intended to separate such items in order to reduce contamination or maintain cleanliness.  The California State law has the added requirement that reusable bags be purchased from a state certified manufacturer starting in July 2017, and the state will directly regulate the reusable bag industry.

WHEN: Bag bans don’t start all at once.  Every bag ban has a date it is passed, and a date it is implemented. In some cases, implementation has a few phases as the bans extend their coverage.  The LA County Ban was implemented in 2012. The California bag ban on the ballot in the fall will be scheduled to start in July 2017, to be extended to convenience stores and pharmacies in 2018.

WHERE:  The legislative landscape on this issue is changing rapidly.  A few of the major areas with bag bans are listed below. You can access a full list of up-to-date ban bans at the California Recycles website.

  • San Francisco was the first city in America to ban bags in 2007. The law was amended to include a fee on all paper and plastic bags and cover more stores in 2010.
  • Los Angeles County, home to over 10 million people, passed the single largest bag ban in the US in 2010. Under this law, stores must charge no less than 10 cents for any bag—paper or plastic—provided at check out.
  • 149 other California cities have passed local bag laws.
  • New York City passed a five cent bag fee on paper and plastic bags from a broad array of retailers in May 2016 that will go into effect in October 2016.
  • Many other cities around the country from Alaska and Arizona to Washington State and Washington DC have also legislated bags. Check the full list here.