On January 1, Oregon will join California in banning plastic bags. Some Western states, however, are preventing cities and counties from banning them

Plastic Bags on Beach
Nick Brundle Photography

In 2007, San Francisco influenced other cities by banning plastic bags citywide; in 2009, Mexico City followed suit. You probably already know that the average grocery store plastic bag isn’t biodegradable and may end up sitting in a landfill for 1,000 years (we don’t know yet, since they haven’t been around that long). But why care about plastic bags, other than to know where they’re banned?

The most talked-about reason is that our convenient plastic carry-alls are bad for the oceans and marine life. Yes, it’s horrible what plastics do to turtles, fish, and other animals—and to your wallet, since the average taxpayer pays anywhere from $8 to $18 for beach cleanup, storm drain cleaning and maintenance, and litter removal. But plastics are also endangering life ashore by leaching toxic chemicals like flame retardants, plasticizers, antioxidants, UV stabilizers, and pigments into soil and freshwater.

If you eat seafood, it’s because of our plastics use that you’re consuming microplastics with your fish. And despite reports that using a reusable bag isn’t as environmentally beneficial as we thought, it’s still better than putting microplastics in the ocean and the ground from billions of plastic bags.

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If you’re set on recycling your plastic bags, don’t put them in your curbside bins, because they’ll fly away or clog up recycling machines; take them back to grocery stores that accept them for recycling.


Arizona’s SB 1241, passed in 2015, actually prevented cities, towns, and counties from passing anti-plastic and anti-auxiliary container laws. The law came after a monumental state-versus-city battle. In 2012, the City of Bisbee, a tourist city near the Mexican border, banned plastic bags, citing pollution issues and cleaning costs. Plastic bags were clogging up their canyons, getting stuck on cacti, and helicoptering through the air. But Bisbee was driven to the brink of bankruptcy and forced to repeal its local plastic bag ban after Arizona threatened to withhold $2 million in funding, saying the ban was illegal. Tempe attempted to pass a similar plastic bag ban, which was stopped when the state passed SB 1241. Tempe City Councilwoman Lauren Kuby sued the state, saying it did not have the right to prevent such a local ordinance, and lost, so Arizona remains pro-plastic for now.


California’s 2014 SB 270 imposed a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores, along with a 10-cent minimum charge for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags at certain locations.


The archipelago, with much of its tourism dependent on marine life, has a strong impetus for banning plastic bags. Between 2011 and 2015, the four populated counties of Hawaii—meaning, effectively, the entire stateenforced a plastic bag ban. Going beyond plastic bags, Honolulu’s phaseout bill of all single-use plastic was passed on December 4, 2019.


Idaho has gone in the opposite direction from many Western states. The state’s 2016 HB 372 prohibits any local regulation on plastic bags and auxiliary containers—purportedly, in the name of protecting business concerns. All such anti-plastic laws must be enacted by the state legislature, not by local governing authorities. Some grocery stores in Idaho have chosen not to carry plastic bags, or are pursuing their own storewide bans.


In 2019, Oregon passed HB 2509, which means that with certain exceptions, restaurants and retailers are prohibited from dispensing single-use plastic bags to customers. Retailers also have to charge at least five cents for fabric bags, reusable plastic bags, or paper bags—and the paper bags must be made of 40% or more post-consumer recycled content.


Though a statewide ban on plastic bags looked promising when it passed the Senate, the bill died in the House in April 2019 due to pulp and paper lobbyists, who opposed the fee that would be charged to customers who wanted a paper bag.

Another big contributor to microplastics? Plastic straws, which are tough to recycle due to their small size. Here’s our guide on plastic straw bans in western cities and states.

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