A Community without Plastic Bags: The impact of San Luis Obispo County’s bag ban


The perennial question shoppers are always asked, “Paper or plastic?”, has disappeared from San Luis Obispo County, California. On October 1, an ordinance adopted by the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority banned the use of plastic grocery bags in large stores.

You can read the ordinance here.

The law does not apply to most small businesses, but it has made shopping at grocery stores and other large retailers a bit more of a hassle – if you don’t bring your own reusable bag, you either have to buy a cloth one there (usually for a few dollars), or pay 10 cents for the right to use a paper bag.

The law’s supporters say it’s all worth it. Because plastic is made from petroleum, does not biodegrade, and can injure or kill wildlife, a growing number of communities across the United States, even whole states, have decided to ban them directly (as here in San Luis Obispo County) or to tax them in order to encourage shoppers to find alternatives. It is estimated that up to a trillion disposable plastic grocery bags are used worldwide, including 380 billion in the United States alone. Only about 5% of these bags are recycled – the rest winds up in landfills or as litter.

On the other hand, organizations like the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition argue that such bans do not help the environment the way they are intended, claiming plastic bags use less greenhouse gas emissions than paper bags, and that paper bags release toxins from their inks when they biodegrade.  Other critics claim that poor shoppers are burdened by such bans. And one study conducted by the National Center for Policy Analysis found that in communities that have such bans, customers may forego local stores and take their business to places where plastic bags are legal.

So, what do the locals, who have actually been directly affected by the ban, think? I decided to find out:

Most stores now have signs in the parking lot or on the front door reminding customers to bring reusable bags for their shopping. Some stores offered free reusable bags immediately before the ban, in order to help make the transition easier for customers.

For more information, you can visit PlasticBagLaws.org to learn about current legislation regarding plastic bag use, Ban the Bag! for information on how you can support such bans, and the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition for information on how to oppose them.