San Jose Bans Plastic Bags

A little good news to start the year with: as of January 1, 2012, my hometown (not so much a town as a sprawling, amoeba-shaped suburb south of San Francisco) has banned virtually all retailers from giving out plastic shopping bags. You can’t even buy them anymore. If you forget to bring your own bag, your only options are to 1) carry it out without one (this means you, Mrs. Can-I-Get-This-Laundry-Detergent-Double-Bagged), 2) buy a reusable at the store, or 3) pay 10 cents for a paper bag. My own little San Jose now has one of the strictest bag bans in the nation.

I want people to make educated, rational, and voluntary choices. I do, I really do. But I also recognize that regulation works better (much better) than education in some things, especially when it comes to making us give up an immediate convenience for longterm sustainability. Plastic bags aren’t the most important environmental issue we face, not by a long shot. But they do show how effective regulation can be. Within a few weeks of Ireland’s new plastic bag policy (people can still choose to buy plastic bags at checkout if they want, but they cost about 33 cents each), bag usage dropped 94%. Everyone bought (or finally started to use) reusables. Plastic bags became a social taboo. In Washington, DC, the 5 cent plastic bag tax caused the number of plastic bags given out to plummet from 22.5 million per month to 3 million.

That’s huge. Charging for plastic bags made more of a difference than giving out free reusables or educating people on the reasons to avoid disposable bags. I dunno, maybe we should just accept that, as a species, humans are not going to act wisely, rationally, and thoughtfully unless we have an incentive to — or a disincentive to act badly. Government? You listening?

San Jose’s reaction to the new bag ban is, not surprisingly, mixed. There is plenty of libertarian howling about the evils of more government and less choice. Plastic lobbyists are displeased. And lots of people are complaining about the cost of paper bags (.10) or reusables (.99-2.99). I’m not really sure why. Many stores in my area have given away reusables on Earth Day or when they opened, and Target and probably other retailers were giving reusable bags away for free yesterday. At this point, I feel like everyone who wants reusable bags already has a closet full. I certainly do.

I think the roar will die down pretty quickly once people settle into new habits. The only bags I tend to use are my handy roll-up Envirosax that fit perfectly into a purse and hold everything, so I’m planning to bring some of my extra reusable bags to the store with me to give away to anyone who needs one. It’s a good way to start a new year of environmental awareness and activism.

Here’s to progress and hope in 2012!


31 responses to this post.

    • Definitely! I wish I had had something to do with this! But I can’t take any credit, apart from living in a city where maybe more people care than not.


  1. This is pretty excellent!! I wish more places around the US would do this. Plastic bags aren’t as necessary as people think. Even though we’ve developed unique uses for them – like we’ll use plastic bags as mini garbage bags – I think it’s because we often get so many, so often it’s a form of re-purposing.

    And it’s funny – just last night my mom was talking about how she always forgets to use her Earth tote bag for things. 😀


    • Hi ParisianFeline,

      I think it’s only a matter of time before plastic bag bans become common throughout the US. I was reading on Wiki this morning that 1/4 of the world’s countries already have plastic bag restrictions or bans in place. I wish the US would hop on this trend a lot faster, but realistically, it’s going to take time.

      I used to forget my reusable bags all the time until I got ones that fit in my purse. 🙂 I have two in my purse at any given time, so even if I forget to replace one after using it, I’ve still got a backup. The ones I have unfold to be quite roomy, so I rarely need more than one at a time.


  2. Wow! That’s fantastic! I’ve long thought that it was just common sense to charge for bags… that’s what they did when I lived in Norway 25 years ago. Guess common sense isn’t so common after all!

    As part of my schizophrenic shopping routine (I span the gamut from Whole Foods to discount grocery) I shop at a little neighborhood store called Save-a-Lot – or El Cheapo as I lovingly call it. (Named for the fact that it has really cheap prices and I’m generally the only English speaker in the place.) Anyhow, as part of their cost saving measures, they don’t give away bags, although they do sell plastic bags. They also don’t sack your groceries for you… instead they have a big counter where they give away all of the cardboard boxes that the food arrived in. It just seems like a no-brainer to me… people get a sturdy box to carry their groceries in, there’s no plastic waste, and the boxes are used instead of just being tossed.

    While I have occasionally seen someone fork over the money for a few bags, most people are very happy with the cardboard boxes. I’m one of the crazy few who actually brings reusable bags – I figure I’ll save the boxes for those who need them, plus I generally walk to this store, and I find it easier to haul groceries in a bag with a nice shoulder strap.

    At some point I think that the economic realities are gonna catch up to us with all of this stuff. The thing the libertarians never get, is that without all of those pesky regulations which they decry so vociferously, we’re all forced to pay the price for cleaning up the messes created by other people’s choices.


    • Hi Cat!

      I also have schizophrenic shopping habits: Whole Foods on one end, Grocery Outlet on the other. My mother actually had her reusable bags stolen at Grocery Outlet, which might tell you a little about what kind of place it is. (But they have an erratic but often exciting selection of organic and natural foods…) The boxes are a great idea. Much sturdier than paper bags, anyway! I think consumers should absolutely be responsible for offsetting the costs to produce and dispose of the things they buy, and the things they buy them in. It’s clear we begin to value plastic bags and use them more wisely if we have to pay for them!


  3. Yippee! Did you see that they are trying to ban plastic bags state-wide? I’m so with you on the regulation v. education. There has been loads of education for the last ten years or more.


    • Hi Green Bean,

      That’s terrific! I’ve heard a little about statewide bans (surely more effective than having one city at a time do it), and I’m guessing that the success of San Jose’s experiment will affect the total outcome. I think most people are aware of reasons to switch to reusable but need some more incentive to actually do so. People like my parents have good intentions, bring reusables some of the time but forget or run out the rest of the time. They’re not as passionate about environmental sustainability as I am, so I can’t see them voluntarily forsaking plastic bags on their own. However, once they end up paying a few dollars in paper bags, I’m sure their ability to remember their bags will have improved remarkably. 🙂


  4. Posted by Joy on 01/02/2012 at 20:24

    Jennifer, I love your lucid and elegant writing style. Thank you again for pointing me to this post.


  5. Way to go, San Jose! I’m crossing my fingers and toes that people will remember to bring their own reusable bags, instead of buying new reusable bags at the checkout… every time… 😦

    I, too, carry an Envirosax roll-up bag in my purse, and it’s saved me on many occasions!


    • Hi Andrea,

      You have a good point…I think a lot of people will acquire reusables and then forget to bring them all the time. I don’t think anyone’s ever tracked that, and I’ve read that too many reusable bags are also a problem. However, after having to cough up a couple dollars at the checkout just on bags, maybe their memories will improve? And certainly, the bag cost will incentivize people who have just forgotten their reusables in the car to go out and get them. We’ll just have to see how things work out. I am very hopeful that it’s the start of some even more far reaching bag policies.


  6. Wow, I lived in the Bay Area several years ago and never would have guessed that San Jose would be the place to do something this great! Maybe it will prompt more medium-sized towns to follow suit.

    I love that you are going to give some of your bags away. That is such a great idea and a way to get more people involved. Maybe there will be a reusable bag swap or something where you can come get those free ones people just have stashed in their closets!


    • Hi Brenna,

      Yeah, San Jose…not exactly a firebrand among Californian cities. Surprisingly, San Francisco’s plastic bag policy is quite a bit less strict, and Berkeley doesn’t have one at all yet. I think it’s only a matter of time before the something statewide becomes reality. Population wise, San Jose is larger than San Francisco, even if it still feels completely suburban!

      I should offer some of my reusables on Freecycle. Good idea!


  7. Posted by Emily on 01/08/2012 at 19:51

    Awesome! Ideally, I’m not a fan of more rules and regulations, but I understand that most humans are incapable of monitoring themselves. I’ve been to many stores where they give you 5 cents back for each reusable bag you bring in. 5 cents off your grocery bill doesn’t mean much though; I like the idea of charging 33 cents per plastic bag. I think that every grocery store should have a bin near the checkouts where you can drop off your old clean plastic bags. Then its easy to reuse them and you’re all set if you forget to bring more in. Also, like EcoCatLady, my grocery store has a big pile of free cardboard boxes. That’s a great solution- both for reusing the boxes and not using bags.

    Contrary to how I free about this issue, plastic grocery bags are kind of sacred in my home. We use them as garbage bags but since we hardly ever acquire them, they’re a hot commodity. It seems cleaner and more sanitary to contain garbage in a bag rather than dumping individual pieces of yucky mess into the dumpster. Other than making no trash at all (which is really difficult), does anyone have any suggestions for disposing of garbage without plastic bags?


    • Hi Emily,

      Yeah, the 5 cent reward doesn’t do much for most people, but having to pay for bags…gasp! Everyone’s ability to remember to bring bags has undergone a swift improvement. What I’ve observed at the store is that everybody has had reusables for years — they just weren’t motivated to pull them out and use them consistently until now.

      I agree, kitchen trash is a bit of a problem, especially since I don’t compost. (If you do, what kind of messy garbage do you still generate? All of our wet garbage is pretty much vegetable and fruit scraps.) I acquire the odd plastic produce bag when I forget to bring mine to the store, the bags that our Sunday newspaper come in, bread bags, and any plastic bags given to me by my mother, who likes to bring me food. We put our kitchen trash in a lidded plastic container that sits on the counter. When we don’t have plastic bags to line it, we just throw the trash into it directly and dump it. It’s mostly vegetable bits, so I don’t feel too bad adding it to the dumpster, though I have to say that I do prefer to be able to line it. For the cat’s litter box, I fold my own newspaper bags. I know they probably won’t biodegrade fast enough in the dumpster to make a difference, but since plastic bags are now, as you say, hot commodities around here, it works. 🙂


      • Posted by Emily on 01/09/2012 at 10:20

        Great idea with the newspaper bags. I compost all veggie scraps, even dirt from sweeping. I guess the gross garbage we usually make is occasionally chicken bones/carcass and the plastic bag that the chicken comes in. Also sometimes bits of meat fat and silverskin. Other than than its mostly small plastic bags- like a package of barley bag or torn plastic produce bags (which I reuse, but are so flimsy and don’t last long). Also bottle caps, dryer lint, dirty tissues, and sometimes a glass bottle, since we can’t recycle glass here. I don’t think our landlord would appreciate us tossing our trash into the dumpster without it being contained. He’s the kind of guy that actually buys ‘real’ trash bags. I suppose I could try stuffing things into said barley bag, but that seems a little anal.


        • Hmm, I don’t have any good ideas for getting rid of meat scraps or bones and can definitely see why you would want to contain them. Produce bags are totally flimsy. If I spot a small tear or hole, I will actually slap a piece of masking tape over it so I can use the bag. Hot commodity! No idea if that’s ‘greener’ than just recycling the bag and making do with something else.

          You can’t recycle glass?! I’m surprised you haven’t raised hell over that already.


  8. That’s great! I agree – for simple things like plastic bag usage, just removing availability is by far the best thing for a governmental body to do.

    I always get annoyed when I see packets of tobacco in the UK with “Smoking harms you and others around you!” in block letters across the front. It’s like, don’t sell it if you don’t want people to have it!

    Congratulations on your hometown greening up a little! (: xx


    • Hi Tegantallullah,

      Yeah…the difficulty is always finding the right line between restricting choice and encouraging people to independently make good ones. In my ideal world, people would have access to the information they need to make good, rational decisions and make them. But I think we’ve been trying that model with regard to plastic bags for some time, and it hasn’t been working.

      So far the bag ban seems to be working out pretty well. I see lots of people pulling old reusables out of their closet, and I don’t think any amount of education would have produced results this dramatic.


  9. I always carry a cloth bag in my truck that I got from the local grocery store when I go shopping. I probably have about 10 of them in my closet. I am glad plastics are finally getting the recognition as a dangerous item, not only for the environment, but also for wildlife.


    • Hi Dennis,

      Great habit! I think a lot of people who have good intentions have bags in their car, then forget to bring them in with them. The fact that bags will now cost money seems to motivate them to go back out and get them, and I think that’s a very good thing — more resources go into reusable bags, so they need to be used many times in order to actually be greener than disposables. I have probably over ten reusables in my trunk and my hall closet, but I’m trying to give one or two away every time I go shopping.

      I agree that the inconvenience to shoppers should weigh less than the damage plastic bags do to our waterways and wildlife. The relative permanence of plastic makes me think we should reserve it for uses in which it does the job better and longer than anything else. Shopping bags are not one of them.


  10. Posted by Tom on 02/09/2012 at 14:43

    This is the whole scam from the Government trying to get the most money out of you. If they said plastic bag is not good for environment, why not giving out paper bags for free? What is the reason for charging brown bag? They used to be free.


    • Hi Tom,

      Actually, the government doesn’t make a penny off the charge for paper bags (though CA will save considerable amounts of money from not having to clean up plastic bag waste along our waterways and streets and cleaning out gummed-up recycling plants). The stores get the full .10 per bag. I seriously doubt they’ll get rich off this charge, however, because from what I’m seeing in stores, people are getting better and better about remembering to bring their reusable bags. In my mind, the charge for paper bags makes sense for two reasons: 1) paper bags take resources to make and dispose of, and greater consumer responsibility for those externalities = higher costs = fewer bags taken, and 2) .10 is just enough of a deterrent to help us remember to use reusable bags. I actually like systems that both reward you for remembering to bring a bag (5-10 cents off, or donated to a charity) and ding you for forgetting. The message about reusable bags and the problems with plastic has been around for ages, but just education clearly wasn’t enough to produce a large scale change, so I stand firmly behind the bag ban.

      And Tom, if you’re in San Jose, I am more than happy to give you some reusable bags so you’ll never have to pay the .10 again. Just shoot me an email; I have lots and would love to share with people who don’t have enough.


  11. […] settled into the reusable bag groove and hardly ever miss a beat these days. Nothing changed when San Jose banned the bag at the beginning of this year. Our remaining plastic bags come from the odd produce bag (we […]


  12. Where I live (n. Maine) there are no restrictions on bags. I’m believe more people would remember to bring their own if they had to pay per bag. All I hear from people is “I’d use them, but I forget them at home”. Nothing improves memory more than having to shell out some cash, IMO… ha ha. I admit that when I started it was hard, but I think of it this way… I wouldn’t leave for a shopping trip without my purse/wallet and coupons, so I can’t go without the reusable bags.

    I’m hoping to do something locally about the plastic bags, starting with educating people about them. I don’t think people think about it much, but like I said above, nothing improves memory like paying for something.


  13. […] settled into the reusable bag groove and hardly ever miss a beat these days. Nothing changed when San Jose banned the bag at the beginning of this year. Our remaining plastic bags come from the odd produce bag (we […]


  14. Check out my new blog:

    On my blog I have a downloads menu item. If you click on that there are a number of papers that I have written that can be downloaded.

    One paper titled “Negative Health and Environmental Impacts of Reusable Shopping Bags” deals with the health issues more extensively than you did in the article above. For example, in addition to bacteria, viruses and virus transmission with reusable shopping bags could make other sick. Also, people who have AIDS or a suppressed immune system may be more sensitive to bacteria in reusable bags then people who have normal immune systems. About 20% of the population fit in this category.

    Also, when bag bans are implemented people always complain about all those plastic bags that end up in the landfill. But they have never stopped to calculate all the stuff going into a landfill after a plastic carryout bag ban compared to before. It would surprise you to know that 3 to 4 times the amount of material goes into the landfill post ban than pre ban. Those plastic carryout bags are sure looking good. see my article titled “Fact Sheet – Landfill Impacts” for the details and the calculations.

    There is much more.


  15. […] settled into the reusable bag groove and hardly ever miss a beat these days. Nothing changed when San Jose banned the bag at the beginning of this year. Our remaining plastic bags come from the odd produce bag (we […]


  16. […] into the reusable bag groove and hardly ever miss a beat these days. Nothing at all changed when San Jose banned the bag at the starting of this year. Our remaining plastic bags come from the odd generate bag (we […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: