End Plastics

A third of the US has laws preventing plastic bans

When I recently visited my family in Cleveland, I learned of Cuyahoga County’s plan to ban single-use plastic bags — only to also learn of the ban’s delay. In seconds, I went from encouraged to disheartened, proud to embarrassed.

Amid the hectic holiday season, the county legislature pushed the enforcement of the ban from January 1 to July 1. Clevelanders now have six long months to see what, if anything, happens. Such is the tumultuous world of plastic legislation in the United States.

Like climate change, when it comes to plastic bag bans, we have the solutions, but often we lack the political will or financial incentives to make these solutions happen. And like climate change, the more we delay, the worse it will be for our oceans, our health and our pristine landscapes. Waste Management estimates that each year we use 4 trillion plastic bags worldwide.

With a new year and a fresh slate (have you made your New Year’s resolution for the planet, yet?), let’s see where the rest of the country stands on plastic legislation. Perhaps we can learn something from the successes — and struggles — of banning single-use plastics.

Statewide bans on bans

In November, we wrote about how preemptive laws can make it impossible for cities to carry out plastic bans. Preemptive laws, pushed by plastic industry lobbyists, create a legislative obstacle course where statewide laws trump local laws, preventing local ordinances from passing their own plastics bans, even if they wanted to.

“These laws are paralyzing cities that desperately want to do something to fix their plastic pollution problems,” said David Ayer, Earth Day Network’s End Plastic Pollution campaign manager. “In much the same way as big tobacco and the gun lobby have acted, plastic industry groups are subverting local democracy by buying up state legislators. Repealing these preemption laws is a main priority in the U.S.”

[Preemptive] laws are paralyzing cities that desperately want to do something to fix their plastic pollution problems.

David Ayer, End Plastic Pollution campaign manager

Currently, 10 U.S. states have passed preemptive laws, making it impossible for cities in these states to pass single-use plastic bans. Seventeen states total have some sort of restrictions that prevent future plastic bans (essentially a ban on bans), as reported by National Geographic last year. In other words, a third of the U.S. has laws that allow our plastics problem to fester and grow.

Ohio isn’t one of these states with a preemptive law or a ban on bans (yet — there’s a proposed preemptive ban in the state legislature). Still, as we saw in Cuyahoga County, even those ordinances with the ability and will to pass plastic bans still struggle to do so.

Meanwhile, the plastics pile up.

Statewide bans

But not all hope is lost. Three states — California, Hawaii and New York — have enacted variations of plastic bans. And their successes have shown other states can follow suit.

In 2014, California became the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. But even California, a state known for its progressive policies, had to jump through some legislative hurdles to get there, including a referendum that forced a statewide vote. When Proposition 67 passed, the law was upheld.

Hawaii doesn’t technically have a statewide plastic bags ban, but all four counties that make up the state have plastic bag restrictions, essentially making it the law of the land.

And starting March 2020, New York will become the third state to carry out its ban on plastic bags, which will apply to most single-use plastic bags provided by grocery stores and other retailers

These three states have also imposed taxes on alternative bags —a 10-cent tax in California and as high as 15 cents in Hawaii.

City bans and taxes

Speaking of taxes, many cities and states that don’t have bans have imposed taxes for single-use plastic bags.

In 2010, Washington, D.C., enacted a 5-cent tax on single-use plastic bags to incentivize consumers to pursue alternatives. On top of reducing plastic bags, the ban raises $2 million a year, part of which funds educational programs for D.C.’s local Anacostia River.

Other states without outright bans — like Delaware, Connecticut and Oregon — impose varying restrictions on plastic bags, like taxes, fees or specific recycling programs.

“While they may seem like half measures, bag fees and taxes have proven to be incredibly effective in reducing the use of single-use plastic bags,” said Ayer. “After Washington, D.C., introduced its modest five-cent fee, bag use, and the resultant number of plastic bags found in the local environment, dropped by 70 percent.”

While they may seem like half measures, bag fees and taxes have proven to be incredibly effective in reducing the use of single-use plastic bags.

David Ayer, end plastic pollution campaign manager

And we can’t forget about the local powerhouses that are U.S. cities: Roughly 400 municipalities have restricted plastic bags in some way. This follows the nationwide trend of cities leading the charge in environmental policy.

All these efforts across the country provide hope for a future without plastic pollution, but if structural barriers exist — mostly preemptive laws, enacted by politicians influenced by the plastic industry — we’ll keep trashing Earth.

Though the United States’ plastic bag system is literally a mess, it shouldn’t be the normal. According to United Nations Environmental Programme, around 60 countries have banned or plan to ban single-use plastic bags, including most recently China, proving that even large, industrial nations can adapt to such legislation.

Why not just recycle the damn things?

So, what’s the big deal — can’t we just recycle plastics? In theory, recycling sounds great: a closed-loop system that reuses the same material over and over. But in practice, recycling is anything but perfect.

Take America’s plastic grocery bags that are in question: These plastic bags can’t be recycled curbside but instead must be deposited at specified locations, usually outside grocery stores. That added inconvenience may be enough to ensure that only 1 percent of plastic bags are properly recycled.

Plus, it’s easier to just wishcycle, pretending whatever we throw into our blue bins ends up recycled. As Earth Day Network’s Justine Sullivan wrote in August, wishcycling is an “insidious phenomenon [that] convinces well-meaning people … that recycling is a blanket solution to our single-use plastics addiction.”

What you can do to end plastic pollution

Fortunately, there are still productive steps you can take. For a quick catch-up, read my post on 7 tips to recycling better. But let’s face it — recycling is a short-term and ultimately flawed system. It’s better to skip single-use plastics altogether, giving more weight to the five Rs, in order of importance: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and finally, as a last resort, recycle.

Earth Day Network’s End Plastic Pollution campaign also provides tips and resources to cutting back your own plastic waste. But regardless of what we do for the future, it doesn’t change that our parks, trails, streets and neighborhoods could still use some upkeep for the here and now. Check out our Great Global Cleanup campaign to join or organize a cleanup in your community.

If you’re fed up with the plastic pollution, take to the streets on April 22, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and demand change. Tell your local leaders that you want plastic bags to be a priority in your city or state. Echoing the passions and frustrations of the organizers and participants of the first Earth Day in 1970, we’re creating the largest, most diverse mobilization in the history of the planet. Join the movement.