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Plastic Bags Are Banned Again In California, But They're Still Here

Thin single-use plastic bags, like this one in Mission Valley, litter roadsides all around San Diego County on July 8, 2020.
Erik Anderson
Thin single-use plastic bags, like this one in Mission Valley, litter roadsides all around San Diego County on July 8, 2020.

Single-use plastic bags reappeared in California at the end of April because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The executive order allowing the bags to be used for 60 days has expired, but the bags are lingering in San Diego.

“The resurgence of the thin single-use truly single-use plastic bags is astonishing,” said Alex Ferron, of the San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

Plastic Bags Are Banned Again In California, But They’re Still Here
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

The flimsy bags have been off-limits since June 22nd, but they can be found littered all over the county.


“There’s been a huge notable change in the kind of trash we’re finding. Plastic bags are now everywhere,” Ferron said.

The lightweight bags were banned in California in November 2016 when voters approved Proposition 67.

That happened after more than 100 municipalities had enacted bans on their own.

RELATED: Plastic May Soon Be Part Of California Roads (And That’s A Good Thing)

Environmentalists hailed the measure because they say the bags where horrible. California was using 500 million bags a month before the statewide ban went into effect.


But California Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order in late April gave the bags a second life.

“The reason the executive order was placed was not because of scientific proof that reusables were dangerous,” Ferron said. “They came from front line workers who, knee jerk, were uncomfortable. Understandably so. I don’t want to touch anything either, but they asked their grocery store chains to, hey, can you do something about this. Can you make it so we don’t have to touch people’s items.”

The bags are notorious for spilling out of trashcans, trash trucks, and landfills and becoming part of the region’s litter stream. And they’re easy to find along roads even though only some stores used them this past spring.

VIDEO: Plastic Bags Are Banned Again In California, But They're Still Here

“The single-use plastic grocery bag is a prime example of unnecessary use of plastic,” said Mark Murray, the director of Californians Against Waste.

The group successfully convinced voters to ban the bags in 2016.

“This is a product whose useful life last literally maybe ten to 20 minutes,” Murray said. “The amount of time it takes you to get your groceries from the check stand to your home.”

Murray thinks the governor acted too fast when he issued the executive order in April that essentially stopped the use of reusable bags.

State health officials issue their guidance just a week later, determining that reusable bags could be used safely.

Murray understands that uncertainty about COVID-19 drove the governor’s decision.

However, Murray says allowing the bags to return opened the door for a plastic industry anxious to reclaim the California market.

“I have literally seen the propaganda from the plastic bag industry throughout the country where they have tried to take advantage of this situation,” Murray said.

RELATED: Big Oil Will Answer Some Uncomfortable Questions In California Court

COVID-19 was a talking point as industry groups tried to demonize reusable bags as unsafe.

KPBS reached out to the plastic’s industry association and plastic bag trade group but they did not return calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace U-S recently released a petition from more than 120 doctors urging people to resume using reusable bags.

“Reusables can be used safely, provided sanitation practices are in order,” said Ivy Schlagle, a Greenpeace researcher based in California. “As health experts both understand more and are able to clarify for public health departments, decision-makers and stores, that we will sort of a return back to what really is the new normal and that’s turning against excessive plastic.”

She says California public health officials have safety guidelines for the use of customer bags in stores. The state urges shoppers to clean their bags between uses.

RELATED: San Diego Is Shrinking Carbon Footprint During Coronavirus Shutdown

Then they should ask if they can bag their own groceries as they check out. If not, most stores let customers take the goods to their car so they can bag the groceries there.

“Similar to the same way we might wear a face covering, we should be wearing a face-covering to protect others. We should just handle our own bags,” Schlagle said. “We should just bag our own groceries into reusable bags. Because there’s nothing uniquely threatening about the reusable bags if we do those things.”

San Diego County officials are asking store owners to follow state guidelines on reusable bags, but they say stores can add additional restrictions if they feel they need tighter limitations on bags customers bring to the store.

The California Grocers Association is also asking members to follow the state rules which allow customers to use recycled bags.

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