NEW REPORT: Analysis finds bag bans effective at reducing plastic waste, litter

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Until recent decades, most shopping didn’t involve single-use plastic bags. That could be the case again soon. Recently enacted plastic bag bans across the United States, including one in Oregon, have proven that people can still shop without plastic bags – and benefit their communities by doing so. 

Plastic Bag Bans Work, a new report released Thursday by Environment Oregon Research & Policy Center, OSPIRG Foundation and Frontier Group, estimates that, on average, plastic bag bans similar to those studied can eliminate almost 300 single-use plastic bags per person, per year. Studied bans have also reduced plastic bag litter by one-third or more and encouraged the use of more sustainable options. 

“The bottom line is that plastic bag bans work,” said Charlie Fisher, state director with OSPIRG Foundation. “People realize quickly it’s easy to live without plastic bags and get used to bringing a bag from home or skipping a bag when they can. That means less waste and less litter. For our children to inherit a less polluted earth, that’s exactly what we need.”

The report analyzed data from across the country and found that bans in just five locations (with a combined population of more than 12 million people) have cut single-use plastic bag consumption by about 6 billion bags per year – or enough to circle the earth 42 times. 

As of 2021, more than 500 cities and towns across 28 states had a plastic bag ordinance in effect. Ten states – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington – had some form of statewide ban on single-use plastic bags as of 2023 and bans in Colorado and Rhode Island went into effect on the first day of 2024.

“Single-use plastic bags used to constantly get caught in our trees, lining our roadways and polluting our waterways, where they could harm wildlife,” said Celeste Meiffren-Swango, state director with Environment Oregon Research & Policy Center. “It’s exciting to see states like Oregon taking action to reduce the use of this ubiquitous yet unnecessary product. We are seeing real results.”

In Oregon, a statewide bag ban passed in 2019 after sixteen cities and towns had passed local plastic bag bans.

“Outside of Portland, coastal communities were some of the first to advance local bans, witnessing the ongoing impacts to ocean wildlife and blighting Oregon’s beautiful public beaches,” said Charlie Plybon, Oregon Policy Manager for Surfrider Foundation. “Once one of the top items in our beach and highway cleanup programs, we have seen a significant reduction in the amount of plastic bags in our ongoing cleanup efforts.”   

Unfortunately, the plastics industry has figured out a way to continue producing and selling wasteful plastic bags in many of the places that have passed a ban. The report found that in some places, including in Oregon, a loophole allows businesses to replace thin plastic bags with thicker, allegedly “reusable,” ones at checkout for a fee. However, many people only use these thicker bags once, too, before throwing them away. Because of this, in some areas with bans, the weight of plastic bag waste has increased even though the number of plastic bags distributed has declined. 

“Thicker plastic bags go against the intent of these laws, but there’s a simple fix – closing these loopholes,” said Meiffren-Swango. “The Oregon legislature should close the thick bag loophole to make our bag ban as effective as possible.”

“I was proud to lead the effort to ban single-use plastic bags in Oregon in 2019 to reduce plastic pollution and encourage more sustainable bag options,” said Senator Janeen Sollman (SD-15). “While the implementation has been mostly successful, I am disappointed to see the emergence of thicker plastic bags, when the ultimate goal of this policy is to reduce plastic. I look forward to addressing this issue in the future and continuing to find ways to keep harmful plastics out of our environment.” 

The report’s authors suggest other policies to make future plastic bag bans as effective as possible. Recommendations include not allowing plastic film bags of any thickness at checkout, charging a fee of at least 10 cents for single-use paper bags and ensuring proper enforcement. 

“Nothing we use for just a few minutes should pollute the environment for centuries,” said Meiffren-Swango. “We’re happy that Oregon has banned this wasteful product and is helping to reduce plastic waste, cut down on litter and build a cleaner, greener future for everyone.”

To see what environmental impact a plastic bag ban would have on your local community, head to our “Single-use plastic bag ban waste reduction calculator” tool and input your city or state.