Measuring the Effectiveness
of Plastic Bag Laws
Are the laws working? This comprehensive spreadsheet of effectiveness data was prepared by Scientist Action and Advocacy Network (ScAAN) in partnership with PlasticBagLaws.org. The Effectiveness Spreadsheet is linked in Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Bag Law Activist Toolkit, and the toolkit features summaries of the findings from U.S. studies currently available.
Please email email@example.com if you know of other effectiveness studies that should be added to the Effectiveness Spreadsheet.
Links to Effectiveness Studies
California - CalRecycle: California Department of Resources, Recovery, and Recycling, 2019 - The statewide Single-Use Carryout Bag Ban (SB 270) was signed into law by Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. in the fall of 2014. Shortly thereafter the law was suspended by a referendum and did not go into effect until voters approved it as Proposition 67 in November 2016. As directed by the Legislature, this report provides an update on the status of SB 270’s implementation and CalRecycle’s evaluation of what is needed to improve the program.
Interstore comparison from Maine to New Jersey - Ocean State Job Lot, 2018 - The retailer Ocean State Job Lot operates stores in several states and counties with plastic bag fees and bans. In stores where thin plastic bags were banned, 70% of customers used thicker plastic bags provided by the store.
Aspen, CO - City of Aspen, 2018 - In Aspen, CO, there has been a ban on plastic bags and a 20-cent fee on paper bags since 2012. In 2016, a supermarket study of around 1600 customers showed around 15% of customers purchasing paper bags - all other customers used no bags or reusable bags.
Chicago, IL - City of Chicago (commissioned), New York University and the University of Chicago, 2017 - After the implementation of a 7-cent fee in Chicago, IL, the number of plastic bags used at grocery stores was cut in half.
Austin, TX - Austin Resource Recovery and The Zero Waste Advisory Commission, 2015 - The 2014 ban succeeded in decreasing Austin's thin plastic film waste in the litter and recycling streams. However, retailers switched to thick, "reusable" plastic bags, which were not covered by the ban.
Washington D.C. - Alice Ferguson Foundation, 2015 - The Alice Ferguson Foundation surveyed how common plastic bags were during Washington DC's annual clean up before and after the implementation of a 5-cent fee on both plastic and paper.
San Mateo, CA - San Mateo County, 2014 - The San Mateo County Reusable Bag Ordinance was implemented on April 22, 2013 by most jurisdictions in the County. The current survey data shows that more people are bringing their own bag to the store and because fewer bags are being distributed, the report assumes there are fewer bags discarded in the environment.
Richmond, CA - University of California, Berkeley, 2014 - A University of California, Berkeley study looked at bag use before and after a plastic bag ban and 5-10 cent paper bag fee in Richmond, CA. After the ordinance was implemented, early 60% of people brought reusable bags at national chain stores and 70% of people at discount retailers.
Washington D.C. - Opinionworks, 2013 - After implementing plastic bag fee in Washington, D.C., 80% of residents reported using fewer bags each week and more than three-quarters of businesses report providing fewer bags to customers.
Santa Monica, CA - Santa Monica High School, 2013 - A plastic bag ban and 10-cent fee for paper bags were introduced in Santa Monica, CA. A grocery store observation study found that before the ordinance, 69% of customers used plastic, which dropped to 0 because of the ban.
Portland, OR - City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, 2012 - Portland City Council adopted Ordinance 184759 on July 21, 2011 to promote reusable shopping bags and reduce use of single use plastic checkout bags. Reusable checkout bag use increased 304 percent, and highly recycled paper checkout bag use increased 491 percent.
San Jose, CA - City of San Jose, 2012 - In under one year in San Jose, CA, a ban on thin plastic bags, coupled with a 10-cent fee on paper reduced bag litter in rivers to less than a third of the pre-ordinance levels.
Westport, CT - David Brown, Sc. D. Adjunct Faculty, Fairfield University - 2010 - In Westport, CT, a check-out survey showed that in areas affected by the ban-only ordinance, over 50% of customers used "reusable" bags (including thicker plastic bags), roughly 45% of customers used paper bags, and only 2% of customers carried out with no bag. Brown can be reached by email for further comment.
San Francisco, CA - UseLessStuff, 2008 - In San Francisco, a ban on plastic bags (with no mandatory fee) was first implemented in 2007, only applying to large retail stores with over $2 million in annual sales. UseLessStuff conducted a survey on 25 stores affected by this ban-only ordinance and found that the ordinance was ineffective at changing consumer behavior.
Effectiveness of plastic regulation around the world - Scientist Action and Advocacy Network, 2019 - Abating the flow of lightweight plastics into the ocean is an urgent matter for policy intervention. This report summarizes the impact of different policies around the world on reducing plastic usage. Read the brief that pairs with this effectiveness study here.
England (United Kingdom) - United Kingdom Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs, 2019 - Since implementation of the single-use plastic carrier bag fee in 2015, the average number of bags used per person per year has decreased from 140 in 2014 to 10 in 2018. This represents an over 90% reduction in single-use plastic bag usage since first implementation.
Israel - Israeli Government and the United Nations Environmental Programme, 2018 - On January 1st 2017, Israel introduced legislation that required large supermarket chains to charge customers for each plastic bag. One year after the law's introduction, Israel has seen an 80% reduction in overall plastic bag usage and has halved the number of plastic bags found at sea.
Global North compared to the Global South - Collaboration between Knoblauch, Mederake, and Stein, 2018 - Press coverage and global pressure seems to have more impact on the adoption of plastic bag legislation in the Global North, whereas visible and pressing national issues is more of a driver in the Global South.
Australia - Collaboration between Kathryn Willis, Clémentine Maure, Chris Wilcox, and Britta Denise Hardesty, 2018 - A survey was performed of local efforts in communities across Australia to assess efficacy of different waste management and reduction strategies, including outreach efforts, fines for littering/dumping, and bag bans.
Australia and the United States - Collaboration between Qamar Schuylera, Britta Denise Hardestya, TJ Lawson, Kimberley Opie, Chris Wilcox, 2018 -States with container deposit legislation (CDL) have a lower prevalence of plastic containers found in coastal marine debris by up to 40% compared to states without CDL.
Netherlands - Dutch Government, 2017 - In 2016, a ban on free plastic bags was enacted in the Netherlands. A year after the ban, a 71% decrease in plastic bag usage and 40% decrease in resulting litter was observed.
Botswana - University of Botswana, 2017 - Botswana implemented a plastic bag levy that is proving ineffective, mostly because consumers are willing to pay the tax to continue using plastic bags. The study suggests that the levy be increased so that it is prohibitive to many.
Portugal - Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2017 - A Universidade Nova de Lisboa study examined the number of plastic bags carried by survey respondents at the same supermarket in Portugal before/during and 4 months after the implementation of a 10 euro cent bag tax (~11 US cents) in Feb 2015. They found a large (74%) reduction in plastic bag consumption, with a simultaneous 61% increase of reusable plastic bags.
England (United Kingdom) - Cardiff University, 2016 - In 2015, England implemented a 5 pence tax on plastic bags at major businesses. After the tax was introduced, a 36% decrease in plastic bag use was observed in a supermarket observation study.
England (United Kingdom) - United Kingdom Government (Defra), 2016 - In 2015, England implemented a 5 pence tax on plastic bags at major businesses. The 7 main retailers in England issued 83% fewer bags (over 6 billion fewer bags) after the tax was introduced.
Phillipines (Muntinlupa, Manila) - Earth Justice, 2015 - Plastic pollution exacerbated the results of floods in the Philippines because of drain blockages. A variety of municipalities have implemented plastic bans and there was proposed federal legislation.
Phillipines (Antipolo) - MSC by Grace Sapuay, a freelance consultant, 2012 - Antipolo implemented a local ordinance banning the use of plastic bags in the commercial sector. Although data is missing for plastic usage pre-ban, over 90% of respondants indicated that they brought their own reusable grocery bags after the ban.
Wales (United Kingdom) - Cardiff University, 2013 - A Cardiff University study examined the effect of a single-use bag charge (plastic or paper), introduced in October 2011. 34% more respondents reported taking their own bag to the supermarket on their last shopping trip, and there was an increase in support for the charge.
Wales (United Kingdom) - Welsh Government, 2012 - In 2012, the Welsh government estimates a greater than 70% reduction of single use bag usage after introduction of a bag tax in 2011 across a variety of retail industries.
China - Beijing Normal University, 2012 - A Beijing Normal University study examined the effect of a mandatory plastic bag fee of in supermarkets introduced in 2008. They conducted two surveys, one before and one after the implementation of the fee. They found an overall reduction of 49% in self-reported new plastic bag consumption, and a 64% reduction of the number of new plastic bags used on the surveyed shopping trip.
South Africa - University of Capetown, 2012 - Corrected for the volume (value) of the purchases, the plastic bag consumption at supermarket chains decreased by 90%. Following this period, the fee was reduced due to industry pressure, leading to a rebound in number of plastic bags issued, yielding an overall reduction of 44%.
Malaysia - Collaboration between Shahariah Asmuni, Nur Bashirah, Hussin Jamaliah Mhd., Khalili Zahariah, and Mohd Zain, 2013 - In 2011, Malaysia implemented a 6 US cent fee on plastic bags on Saturdays. This study reports that nearly 50% of the population either brought their own reusable bags or did not take a bag at all when grocery shopping.
India (Delhi) - South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, 2011 - Delhi raised the minimum thickness of bags and subsequently ordered a ban but it wasn't implemented thoroughly. This study suggests that in an area where bans are not effectively enforced, information campaigns on environmental impact (contribution to the deadly Mumbai Floods) and cashback/alternative schemes had an impact on plastic bag use.
Brazil (Belo Horizonte) - Collaboration between Santos, Sousa, Sampaio, Fagundes (FEAD, CEPEAD, FACC/UJFJ, FAGEN/UFU), 2008 - In 2008, the municipiality of Belo Horizonte passed a law replacing plastic carrier bags with purchaseable compostable bags. 57% of interviewees reported using reusable bags rather than purchasing compostable bags, 10% bought smaller volumes of goods, and only 2.5% avoided shops that did not supply free bags.
Ireland - University College Dublin, 2007 - Based on questioning retailers, it was estimated that plastic bag usage was reduced by 94% following the introduction of a plastic bag tax. Consumers generally responded positively to the tax.
Collecting data on the effectiveness of local bag laws is very important in testing what laws and fees work in practice. The data can also be helpful when talking to legislators and the community. If you or your organization want to help in collecting data, follow the protocol linked here. Having a consistent collection methodology will ensure that data is useful and comparable later on.
We suggest partnering with a local University or non-profit group to assist in data collection and analysis.