Frequently Asked Questions

What is a bag ban and why do it?

“Paper or Plastic” the age-old adage is no longer a simple choice. Around the world retailers are changing their bag options due to popular demand and/or legislation. The intent is to significantly reduce the environmental impacts due to single-use plastic and single-use paper carryout bags and promote a shift to the widespread use of reusable bags.

What are single-use plastic shopping bags?

Typically a “Single Use Plastic Shopping Bag” means a bag that is made predominately of plastic derived from petroleum or bio-based sources and not intended for reuse. An example is a grocery store bag. The definition of a “single-use plastic bag” is subject to change from various ordinances. It is important to know what your local ordinance definition is.

What is a recyclable paper shopping bag?

Typically a “Recyclable Paper Shopping Bag” must not (1) contain no old-growth fiber, (2) 100% recyclable with a minimum post-consumer recycled content of 40%, (3) capable of composting according to ASTM D6400 specifications, (4) accepted at curbside recycling programs, (5) and has labeled (manufacturer, location of manufacturer, % PCR, and displays “recyclable”). Please visit your city or county website for more information.

Is there a fee for single-use shopping bags?

Depending on the ordinance, retailers of many different types may be subject to implementing a fee per shopping bag. It is typically a 10¢ charge on recyclable paper shopping bags but differs from city to city. Please visit your city or county website for more information.

What is the minimum percentage paper postconsumer recycled content (PCR)?

This is a percentage of material used in the manufacturing of the paper bag that has been recycled and reused and a material that would otherwise be destined or solid waste disposal, having completed its intended end use and product life cycle. Typically, ordinances call for a minimum PCR of 40%, although it is subject to change depending on the ordinance. Please visit your city or county website for more information.


What is a reusable bag?

A “Reusable bag” has handles and is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse and meets criteria required by an ordinance. Typically it is designed for a lifetime capable of carrying a minimum of 22 pounds, 125 times over a distance of at least 175 feet and has a volume of 15 liters. It also must be machine washable or is made from a material that can be cleaned or disinfected. If made of plastic, it typically must be a minimum of 2.25 mil thick. Please visit your city or county website for more information.

How are single-use bags harmful for the environment?

-In 2009 the number of single use HDPE plastic retail bags used annually in the USA was 102 billion. 1

-Plastic bags make up 0.3% of the California waste stream and paper bags compose 0.4%. 2

-Plastic bags may remain in the landfills for over 1000 years, while paper decomposes more quickly, but produces methane, which has 23 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide. 3

-Manufacturing paper bags requires trees. Plastic, on the other hand, is based on petroleum products, a nonrenewable resource.

-Americans discarded more than 3.3 million tons of low- and high-density polyethylene bags, sacks, and wraps in 2000. Of those 3.3 million tons, only 5.4% were recovered through recycling. 4

-In 1999, the U.S. alone used 10 billion paper grocery bags 5

-Littering is another major environmental problem associated with plastic bags. When released in the natural environment, the bags blow into tree branches, waterways, and the ocean. In addition to being an unsightly source of pollution, the bags choke and entangle marine life and terrestrial species.

Which bag option is best?

It is no easy task to determine which bag alternative is most sustainable. How does one judge the impact from so many different perspectives? There are many factors that can make one option better, but from another perspective it may not be the case. Nevertheless, it is widespread thought among environmental scientists that the best alternative is neither paper nor plastic, but reusable bags. The environmental benefits of reusable bags are sensitive to the number of times they are reused as to maximize its lifetime. The goal of this is to use reusable bags as many times as possible. This will decrease materials used in the long run and minimize the impact on the environment.

Does my city have a bag ban?

Only specific municipalities have enacted bag bans. Check with your city’s website for more info if there is a ban.

Will all retail businesses have to comply with these ordinances?

The ordinances are different for each city and many municipalities have not enacted a bag ban. Grocery stores, convenience stores, minimarts, liquor store, drug stores and pharmacies are the main retailers where a bag ban is enforced. Non-food retailers such as shopping retailers are also sometimes implicated. Please visit your city or county website for more information.


Are there any exemptions on these bans?

Some municipalities allow a public health and safety exemption for restaurants and other food providers allowing them to provide single-use plastic bags for the transportation of prepared take-out foods and liquids. The ordinances require different compliances depending on the municipality. Please visit your city or county website for more information.

What are the labeling requirements on bags?

Some ordinances call for specific labeling requirements on bags. The state of California passed Truthful Environmental Advertising for Plastics bill, CA AB 1972. It regulates environmental claims made on plastics unless verified to meet specific standards.

What is the minimum reusable plastic bag thickness?

In order for a plastic bag to be considered “Reusable” by certain ordinances, it must meet certain specifications. One of these is bag measurement and typically calls for a minimum of 2.25 millimeters thick. Please visit your city or county website for more information.


What are the penalties for retailers that do not comply with a bag ban ordinance?

Typically for the first offense, the penalty is a verbal or written warning. For a violation afterwards, the business may be fined. Repeat violators can be forwarded to the City’s Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution.



1. “Polyethylene Retail Carrier Bags from Indonesia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.” U.S. International Trade Commission, May 2009. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

2. “California 2008 Statewide Waste Characterization Study.” Home Page: CalRecycle. California Integrated Waste Management Board, 2009. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

3. “State Weighs Ban on Plastic Grocery Bags.” Accessed 9/12/2010 at 6:20pm

4. “Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in the United States: Facts and Figures.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 11 Apr.

5. The Canadian Press. “Reusable bag risk: Study.” (May 21, 2009) The Toronto Sun. Web, 25 Oct, 2010.

6. Khoo, Hsien Hui et. al. “Environmental Impacts of Conventional Plastic and Bio-based carrier bags: Part 2. Int. J Life Cycle Assessment (2010) 15: 338-345.