Bag Bans as a Gateway to Greener Cities

by Carolyn Flower

Source: Chicagoist

What makes a city a leader in sustainable development?

Cities such as Portland, Ore. and San Francisco, Calif. are repeatedly cited as places where environmental initiatives are steadily becoming more progressive. But how can other communities become centers for brainstorming and creating policies that address pervasive environmental issues?

Reducing plastic and paper bag use can spur cities to become more waste-efficient and undertake other sustainable initiatives in the future. Programs that ban or implement fees for using plastic bags are one way to make communities more aware. Adrift plastic bags are city artifacts people commonly see during their commute or other daily activities. Through programs that encourage step-by-step solutions, communities can become more mindful about how they affect their immediate environment and how their choices have a cascading effect on both neighboring and distant communities.

One of the main issues cities confront is how to reduce and manage accumulated waste. Plastic bags can block sewer systems and drains, making it more difficult to treat and regulate stormwater runoff. Toxic chemicals derived from the degraded plastic can be released onto ground surfaces and into waterways. Even recycling can become vastly more difficult, since many recycling programs do not accommodate plastic bags. Plastic-bag reduction programs present cities with the opportunity to reduce a very common waste product and set a foundation for future collaboration between residents and city agencies.

The Successful Communities Online Toolkit Information exchange (SCOTie), developed by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Sonoran Institute, features cities in the Intermountain West and Western U.S. that are engaging in sustainable development. Best practices such as those featured in SCOTie offer local governments the opportunity to lead by example and encourage like-minded communities to explore innovative planning policies and connect with local planners. The Health and Safety section contains different approaches cities are taking to reduce plastic and paper bag use.

Aspen's plastic bag ban took effect last May. Source:
Aspen Parks & Recreation
An ordinance in Aspen, Colo., implemented last May, is an example of a straightforward plan that combines a single-use plastic bag ban and a 20-cent fee on paper bags used at checkout. Aspen is encouraging regional consistency, which is predicted to strengthen the scope of this behavioral change. Although some worry that a plastic bag ban will increase the use of paper bags, general opinion concedes that the fee is costly enough to discourage paper bag sales in the long run. The city also emphasizes the need to make the program self-sustaining. The plastic bag fee is helping to fund Aspen’s Waste Reduction Program, which includes purchasing equipment designed to minimize trash pollution, such as recycling containers.

Aspen’s popularity with visitors also gives the city an opportunity to include tourists in future collaborations. Visitors will be subject to the new policy and have the opportunity to provide feedback. Bringing both residents and visitors into a city’s planning stages can attract a wider variety of ideas that contribute to increasing the efficiency of waste reduction. Aspen’s ordinance also urges other cities in the state to follow suit. Boulder is now also considering a fee on plastic bags.

The city of Bisbee, Ariz. is engaging residents in waste reduction through a six-month voluntary project that slowly introduces the community to plastic bag reduction. After six months, if the city finds a fee on single-use plastic and paper bags is needed to meet its waste reduction goals, the ordinance will unfold in three phases.

Bisbee's bag reduction ordinance, passed at the end of May, begins as a
voluntary effort. Source: Bags for the People
The Arizona Food Marketing Alliance (AFMA) is collaborating with the city to raise awareness on plastic and paper bag recycling. The campaign is encouraging the largest store in the city, Safeway, to host a bin where residents can recycle their plastic bags. The AMFA has also begun teaming up with schools to start an education campaign on recycling. During a three-week recycling contest at Greenway Elementary School, students collected 252 pounds of plastic, or approximately 17,000 bags during the three week contest. Bisbee’s educational campaign is another example that illustrates how communities can get residents thinking more enthusiastically about environmental initiatives for their city.

One of the most progressive cities in terms of waste reduction is San Francisco, Calif. This was the first U.S. city to ban non-compostable plastic bags in supermarket and pharmacy chains. Grocery stores were only allowed to provide recyclable paper, compostable or reusable bags.

San Francisco's Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance was
implemented in 2007 and revised in 2012. Source:
SF Environment
However, what truly makes San Francisco innovative is its willingness to continually challenge residents to become even more efficient and mindful of their plastic use. This year, the city extended the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance to all retail and food establishments. This was spurred by growing litter in neighborhoods, parks and sewer systems, as well as an emphasis on decreasing ocean and urban pollution (“urban tumbleweeds”). In order to spread the message, San Francisco's environment department is partnering with grocers and local non-profit groups to hold reusable bag giveaways. Customers participating in the WIC or food stamp programs are exempt from the bag charge.

The three cities highlighted above are at different checkpoints on the path to "zero waste." These examples emphasize that the path to successful sustainable development is not seen in one kind of process. Confronting waste accumulation in a series of steps can strengthen a community’s belief that they can implement solutions based on collaboration between many different organizations and city agencies. Inter-departmental cooperation and policies that draw influence from community involvement set the foundation for adopting other successful planning practices.

Additional information:
  • Contact environmental health specialist Ashley Cantrell at 970-429-1798 for more information on Aspen’s program. 
  • Contact city manager Steve Pauken at 480-432-6014 for more information on Bisbee’s program. 
  • Contact SF Environment at 415-355-3700 for more information on San Francisco’s program. 
  • For a comprehensive list of plastic bag laws by state, visit Plastic Bag Laws.
    Carolyn Flower is an intern at the Successful Communities Online Toolkit Information exchange (SCOTie). Developed by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Sonoran Institute, SCOTie is a user-friendly clearinghouse of smart growth and successful policies from communities in the western U.S.

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    1. great post. the review of programs and resources is very helpful. time for me to help take on 'urban tumbleweeds'!

    2. I'm happy you found the resources helpful. Since the post is tied to case studies I wanted to try to include a good amount of resources. I thought the idea of comparing stray plastic bags to "urban tumbleweeds" a good idea too. Thanks so much for commenting!

    3. Thanks for this post and introducing us to SCOTie, which looks like a great resource. Interestingly, I first heard about plastic bag bans in 2007 when Uganda and Kenya issued country-wide bans on plastic bags. Even earlier than this, South Africa enacted a law making the use of certain plastic bags illegal. I'm glad that cities in the US are catching up, but it's interesting to see that not only are some African countries leading the way in this particular issue but that they are able to enforce it on a country-wide level. As far as I know, the only state that has been able to enact a state-wide ban in the US in Hawaii. A number of countries and cities in Europe are also exploring various options for plastic and paper bag bans or taxes on them. In general, it seems positive that countries and cities around the world are recognizing the potentially damaging and long-lasting impact of plastic bags and are trading ideas on how to creatively and sustainably solve the use of plastic bags.

    4. Hi Anna, Thanks so much for your informative comment! That's quite interesting regarding county-wide bans on plastic bags in Uganda and Kenya. I also think it's a good sign that more cities are considering plastic bag reduction programs. I think we have a long way to go, but I think education and raising awareness is a very important start. As far as county wide, I think the Aspen, CO case study seems promising. It seems that perhaps Boulder will follow in similar footsteps, and hopefully this will encourage other surrounding cities to do the same.
      By the way, I've recently posted another blog post on green building design. We've been really working hard to add more case studies and blog posts to SCOTie to spread the word about sustainable development in the West! Feel free to take a look if you're interested. :) I've enjoyed the topics of your blog posts as well!