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Single-Use Bag Regulations

Posted on Mon, Jan 4, 2016

State action stayed by referendum, but local ordinances move forward


By: Matthew Maddox, AICP

Introduction: In late September 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 270 (SB 270) into law, requiring the phase out of single-use plastic bags in California beginning July 2015. While anticipated for a number of years (more than 130 cities and counties in California enacted local ordinances banning the use of plastic bags), similar attempts at statewide bans have failed to pass the state senate since their introduction in 2010. While SB 270 is similar in overall intent to the previously failed bills, SB 270 built on the success of local agency bag-ban ordinances. The new legislation applies to all jurisdictions without a local bag ordinance in place as of September 1, 2014.

Despite passing and being signed by Governor Brown, the implementation of the bill is in question. Advocates for the plastic bag industry have successfully gathered more than the 500,000 signatures necessary for a referendum to appear on the November 2016 ballot to overturn California's bag ban. The referendum delays implementation of a statewide ban on plastic bags at least another two years (postponing the anticipated July 2015 start date to July 2017 at the earliest). In the meantime, local jurisdictions without a local bag ban will have to either wait or attempt to move forward with their own ordinance as the fate of SB 270 hangs in the balance.

Trash.jpgThe Intention of SB 270 and Local Ordinances: SB 270 mirrors local ordinances in the method of achieving a ban on single-use plastic bags. Under most ordinances, reusable paper and (in certain jurisdictions) compostable plastic bags can only be distributed with the minimum of a 10-cent charge. The general intent is to reduce the environmental impacts related to  single-use plastic and paper bags, and to promote a shift toward the use of reusable carryout bags. General impacts associated with single-use plastic bags include water quality issues related to litter that clogs storm drains, aesthetic issues related to plastic bag litter, maintenance costs to remove litter, and effects on biological resources (including birds, sea mammals, and aquatic species) that may ingest or become entangled by plastic bags. It is anticipated that by prohibiting single-use plastic bags and requiring a monetary charge for each recycled paper or reusable bag distributed by retailers, SB 270, like the more than 130 local ordinances already in place in California, would provide a disincentive for customers to request recycled paper bags when shopping at regulated stores and promote a shift to reusable bags. The ban, like most local ordinances, will only apply to grocery stores, large pharmacies, convenience stores, food marts, and liquor stores. The bill exempts restaurants, clothing retailers, hardware stores, sporting good stores and other non-food related retailers.  

The bill also includes standards and incentives for plastic bag manufacturers to retool their facilities for the production of reusable bags. SB 270 contains a provision that local ordinances adopted before September 1, 2014 would be protected under a grandfathering clause. Thus the statewide ban would only affect those jurisdictions that did not implement a local ordinance as of September 1st, 2014, and jurisdictions with an existing ordinance would continue to follow it. In most instances the local ordinances are actually more stringent than SB 270.

Next Steps for Local Jurisdictions: For those jurisdictions without a local bag ordinance, the SB 270 referendum has created a few questions around how to proceed. At this time, as we wait for November 2016 and the referendum vote, local jurisdictions that want to comply with the plastic bag ban in their communities have a few options. First, they can simply wait to see if SB 270 will become statewide law and thus mandate action in their communities. Another option would allow them to move forward now with a local ordinance that could be enacted and implemented. While those ordinances may be ultimately be overridden if SB 270 becomes law, by enacting a local ordinance now the jurisdiction can ensure that, whether or not SB 270 becomes law, plastic bag use in their community will be reduced.

Two jurisdictions, the city of Sacramento and county of Santa Barbara, recently decided to move forward with implementing a local ordinance prior to the referendum vote on SB 270 in November 2016. Both jurisdictions prepared Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) in 2014, prior to the passage of SB 270, which analyzed the potential effect of their local ordinances, but waited to see if SB 270 would pass the legislature. After the referendum delayed the implementation of SB 270, both agencies decided to revise the timelines for moving on their local ordinances. In March 2015, the City of Sacramento certified its EIR and approved a local ordinance that went into effect on January 1, 2016. The County of Santa Barbara certified its EIR and adopted a local ordinance banning plastic bags in August 2015. The Santa Barbara County ordinance will go into effect on March 22, 2016. Both ordinances are generally similar to the statewide law (SB 270) and to the other, more than 130, local ordinances passed by jurisdictions in California since 2007. Regardless of SB 270’s fate at the ballot box, the local communities are acting to ban plastic bags beyond the scope of the state requirements and the bag manufacturers’ objections.

Local Bag Ordinance Success: Although ordinances have been in effect for just a few years, preliminary results indicate that by banning plastic bags and placing a fee on paper bags (generally $0.10 each), a substantial shift to the use of reusable bags or choosing no bag at all is occurring. As shown in Table 1, three jurisdictions (the cities of Santa Monica and San Jose and the County of Los Angeles) all recorded similar results from the implementation of their ordinances. Rather than simply replacing plastic with paper bags, by banning plastic bags and simultaneously applying a $0.10 fee on paper bags, each city was able to encourage customers to bring reusable bags or to take no bag for their shopping. The table below offers an indication of the change in usage

Result of Local Bag Ordinances with a Ten-cent Fee on Paper Bags



Post-Ban (with a $0.10 fee on Paper Bags)










San Jose









Santa Monica









LA County









As previously mentioned, the environmental impacts of single-use plastic bags are detrimental to the landscape, the waterways, and regional fauna. Early regulations controlling the production and distribution of bags in countries like Ireland, Australia, and China have demonstrated significant decreases in animal death and clogged drainage systems, and the use of petro-chemicals for the generation of plastic materials.[i] While there are some objections, especially from the plastics manufacturing industry sector, the loss of manufacturing jobs have been converted to recycling industry and to the production of other types of re-usable, heavier duty bags, and SB 270 does provide some support for conversions to meet these manufacturing needs. Furthermore, even though plastic bag bans have, to a certain extent, become the focus of movements to reduce the use of consumer plastics, generally, there are significant reasons to consider how the success of local ordinances in reducing plastic and paper bag use and the corresponding increase of reusable bags have contributed to improved environmental conditions directly correlated to reduced single-use plastic bag distribution.


[i]See Hopewell, Jefferson, Robert Dvorak and Edward Kosier. “Plastics Recycling: Challenges and Opportunities.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences. 364:1526 (July 2009), 2115-2126.  Senior, Kathryn. “End in Sight for Plastic Bags?” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 6:3 (April 2008), 119. Waddington, Shelagh. “Plastic Bags: A Sustainable Change?” Teaching Geography. 31:1 (Spring 2006), 14-17.

Topics: plastic bag, carry-out bags, single-use bag ordinance