The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

July 1, 2010

Plastic grocery bags: Ban them, tax them, or knit fake plastic fish?

plastic grocery bags Last month, I wrote about California’s plastic bag ban bill (AB 1998), and Fake Plastic Fish reader Old Novice commented that she thought bag bans were a bad idea and would instead favor a bag fee or tax instead. Well, the bill passed the full Assembly as well as the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, and it has now to pass another committee and then the full Senate. I’m in favor of the bill because it’s what we have. I think we need to do something about plastic bags, and I’d rather see a bag ban pass than nothing at all. But is a ban better than a fee? Let’s talk about that.

The Problems with Plastic Bags

According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition:

•Roughly 19 billion plastic bags are distributed in California annually.

•Less than 5% are currently recycled.

•Even when bags are properly disposed, they often blow out of trash cans, garbage trucks, and landfills and become litter.

•Most California retailers subsidize the cost of plastic and paper bags. This cost is estimated at more than $400 million annually, and is passed on to consumers in the form of higher grocery costs.

•In January, Washington, DC enacted a 5 cent ‘fee’ on grocery bags. That policy has been credited with reducing single-use bags by 65%.

•Plastic bags are a key component of the plastic pollution choking our land, our oceans, and our wildlife.

What’s the Solution for Plastic Bags?

California’s bag ban comes with an interesting feature: not only does it ban plastic bags, but it also imposes a 25 cent fee on paper bags, so that the question of paper vs. plastic will be moot. The hope is that customers will start bringing their own reusable bags shopping instead of relying on any form of disposable bag.

There are those who think banning the bags is a great idea. And there are others who feel that bans only create resentment and that charging a fee is a better way to go. In fact, Washington D.C. recently enacted a 5 cent bag tax, which by many assessments has been a success. Erik Assadourian from WorldWatch Institute has written a comprehensive analysis of both options, concluding that a tax is the better way to go:

But the key point is that in a culture like America, where freedom is deemed sacred (even though governments, business, and the media regularly shape our behaviors and thoughts), preserving the perception of free choice is an important part of any successful legislation. So while a plastic bag ban might be better in some places-like China, Kenya, or, yes, San Francisco, a significant bag tax might be the best way to go in California.

Here are a few other opinions I found around the web:

Plastic Bag Fee

Jess Leber on cites the Assadourian piece and concludes that a bag tax, even a small one like the 5 cent tax that was enacted in Washington D.C., works on the guilt factor:

A five cent fee is a pidgin compared to a $50 grocery bill. It certainly leaves us a choice. So, how’s that going to be effective? It’s the guilt factor, of course. You feel more and more ashamed when every time you check out at the local Safeway, you are forced to think about your environmental negligence and admit it to all within earshot.

D.C. blogger Amelia from Gradually Greener says the bag tax is “totally working,” citing her own experience:

I did find myself refusing a plastic CVS bag the other day when I bought a couple of bath items (I stowed them in my purse instead). Probably I’d have taken the bag if it weren’t for the fee.

But blogger TaxGirl, whose tagline is “Because paying taxes is painful… but reading about them shouldn’t be,” finds a problem with the concept of bag fees. When cities depend on them for revenue, the success at behavior modification can be costly.

The very nature of taxing “bad behavior” is that, if you’re successful, the revenue stream will eventually dry up. And yes, it feels like that should be a good thing. But politicians aren’t really counting on the idea that the tax will accomplish the behavioral goals — they tend to count on the revenue. It’s exactly the reason that I tend to be critical of these kinds of taxes.

Plastic Bag Ban

So what about outright bans instead?  A plastic bag ban would remove consumer choice, thus eliminating plastic bag pollution entirely. The question is whether we are willing to allow some plastic bag pollution in an effort to let consumers feel they have a choice, or whether it’s more important to us to get rid of them altogether.

A few days ago, the L.A. Times endorsed California’s bag ban bill, but not without qualifying their endorsement with the opinion that they felt a significant fee would have been better:

A preferable solution would be a significant fee on all single-use bags; such fees have worked well elsewhere. But as it’s now written, the Brownley bill, AB 1998, is a good compromise that will make a real environmental difference at a minimum of inconvenience or cost. It doesn’t levy new expenses on grocers or other retailers — the bill has the support of the California Grocers Assn. — and it gives consumers a choice of either paying a few cents for a more environmentally acceptable paper bag or avoiding the cost altogether by bringing reusable totes.

Blogger Saved By the Bay favors both bans and fees (as long as the fees are steep enough) and thinks that people would get over their initial opposition to a full-on ban:

Changes in behavior are hard at first, but we humans are actually highly adaptable creatures. Over 35 Bay Area cities have total or partial bans on styrofoam. Does anyone miss styrofoam anymore? As a frequent bike/pedestrian shopper, I can vouch first-hand that reusable totes are in fact much more convenient and easier to carry than a plastic or paper bag.

And Jennifer Grayson from The Red, the White, and the Green has a more self-serving reason for supoprting California’s bag ban:

I pray that it passes, if only to imagine the dumbfounded reaction of the lady I encountered yesterday in the checkout line of the supermarket. She asked for her purchase — a lone toothbrush — to be double bagged.

Voluntary Bans

Some towns have bypassed the legislature altogether. In the English town of Modbury, activist Rebecca Hosking was able to get a bag ban enacted without actually getting any law passed. An environmental filmmaker who went to the Pacific to film marine life for the BBC, Hosking was horrified by the plastic bag pollution she encountered. So she invited all 43 shopkeepers in her small village to a screening of her film and was able to convince all 43 of them to agree to stop giving out plastic bags.

Perhaps voluntary efforts like Modbury’s can work on a small scale, but for large cities like San Francisco or Washington D.C., legislative efforts are probably necessary. Of course, there are those who feel nothing needs to be done about plastic or paper bags in the first place.

No Ban or Fee

Katy Grimes insists on the Cal Watchdog site that the problem is not with the bags themselves but with people’s behavior:

Plastic bag manufacturers argue that the problem is not the manufacturing of plastic bags, it’s a litter problem caused by careless people. Enforcing litter laws would go much further to helping the environment according to opponents of Brownley’s bill.

And some opponents claim that a plastic bag ban/fee would be a hardship for poor people. But Daniella Russo from the Plastic Pollution Coalition refutes that argument:

1) The cost of “free” bags is already embedded in the price of our groceries

2) Cities must tax residents to pay to clean up plastic bag litter.

3) Many of the world’s poorest countries have already successfully banned plastic bags.

Ban Both

Blogger Sianwu from That’s Amasian supports a ban for all disposable bags — paper and plastic. Listing the pros and cons of both, she concludes:

So what’s my verdict? Paper is no better than plastic, even though paper seems to be the choice of greener outfits like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Any city or state ordinance seeking to limit the use of disposable bags should do the right thing and ban or tax both.

She also offers a list of ways to reuse both kinds. But she skipped the one I like the best — knitting. Yes, back when I first created my blog Fake Plastic Fish, I decided that the best use for the plastic bags I had collected would be to knit a fake plastic fish. Here’s the result of my efforts. Not so beautiful. But then, neither are plastic bags.

plastic grocery bags

So what do you guys think is the best solution?

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While looking for alternatives to plastic stuff in Europe, where I live, I came across the information that Rwanda has banned all plastic bags since 2008 !!!
I find that excellent and wonder why it would be so much more difficult in other countries, like mine or yours… ;-)

Plastic-Free Ericka Moderator

India and Ireland also have banned all plastic bags. I know in the case of India it was out of dire need due to their population size. Plastic bags were actually clogging their sewers which let to mass flooding.


My hubby and I used to have friends save bags for us so he could make yarn and crochet them into reusable bags. He made diaper bags, pool bags, purses, grocery bags etc.
I would still get behind a cross the board ban.:)


I like what wholefoods does, they give you a credit for each of your own bag that you bring.

Did you hear about one town in Australia they are planning on banning plastic bottles altogether, that should be interesting, I wonder if any other cities will follow.

Kayla K

I am in favor of your fake plastic fish! I crochet plastic bags into tote bags and have written a tutorial: Actually, I have made enough reusable totes that I do not take plastic bags anymore. Everyone who sees my tote gives me a ton of grocery sacks. It seems they know that grocery sacks are bad because they won’t throw them away, but they do not have the forethought to not take them in the first place. Plastic bags need to be banned completely. I will happily part with my favorite crafting material if it means people will… Read more »


I am all for SOMETHING happening in order to try and permanently change the cultural idea of single use bags. I personally think a ban would remind me to bring my bags more often but a tax may as well (probably not). I am simply tired of the amount of plastic bags I can’t seem to avoid. When I go to the store up the street there is one teller who doesn’t ask even though they have both kinds available and more often than not I can simply carry it out if I forget to bring my bag or basket… Read more »


We banned thalidomide, because it damaged people. I think we should ban plastic bags, because they damage our world – far more important than individual people. But to play devil’s advocate, why plastic bags? Is it just because they’re an easy target? I mean, disposable nappies probably cause just as much damage. Cars cause more damage, as do cows, yet I haven’t seen any government table a discussion to ban any of the above. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we shouldn’t ban plastic bags, but I do think this is a bit of a red herring on the… Read more »


I’m thirty, I live in Germany and neither me nor my SO remember grocery or drug store bags free of charge. But every store also sells reusable bags. I was so accustomed to carry one with me, I even took a bunch with me when I moved to the US. And got lots of weird looks using them. I don’t remember ever having bought a plastic grocery bag, even if it’s just 15 or 20 cent. It just seems to be a waste of money, too. If I forgot to bring a bag, I just stuff things in my purse… Read more »


I think that a fee would be better at first. First a fee to get people to notice their behavior, understand the consequences and willingly change their behavior, then phase in the ban. Less painful, more voluntary. Unfortunately a plastic bag ban isn’t going to stop the most prolific litter that I see, which is plastic bottles, plastic cups, plastic wrappers and plastic poop bags full of dog poop. As for what to do with your plastic bags. You can layer them, melt them with an iron into a single strong sheet, and sew them into your own reusable bags.… Read more »


Tax, tax tax! DC passed a 5 cent bag tax for any establishment that sells food starting Jan 1st of this year to help reduce litter in the Anacostia river and it has been tremendously successful. Even without neighboring areas of Virgina and Maryland implementing taxes a presentation I saw by a local NGO two weeks ago said that plastic bag pollution in the river has decrease 80% – in just a few short months! The tax applies to paper and plastic bags, local businesses were consulted and because of the higher costs paper bags have for them, they recommended… Read more »

Chriss Smith

Terry, A local Grocery Chain has gone “plastic free”, and they charge 3 cents per paper bag. I feel this has been quite successful, in getting the customer to bring in reusable shopping bags. But Frankly I feel that the “grocery bags” are only half of the problem. What about all of the plastic bags from the produce section? What are they doing about it? Not much. I say get plastic out of the produce section too! Sure, some stores are offering “biodegradable” and “degradable” produce bags but that does nothing for the idea of “single use”. Note, I am… Read more »


Get rid of them. I don’t even understand the need for them.


ALDI stores already do something like this. You bag all your own groceries, and if you don’t bring your own bags or boxes, you buy them at checkout. I’d say %90 of the time people have their own bags or totes. I think they charge like 25 cents for paper bags and maybe a little more for plastic ones.


I wonder whether many of the stores that now slip you a plastic bag without asking would change their behavior if there was a bag fee. For example, I’ve been having a really hard time getting my favorite Banh Mi place to stop giving me my sandwiches (paper wrapped, yay!) in a plastic bag. Besides simply asking not to have a bag, I have been so bold as to try to explain the environmental impact, but it’s like talking to a brick wall. I keep ending up with a bag. And then there’s all the places that will throw the… Read more »

David Leonhardt

I think “freedom to choose” has gotten confused with (as Beth so eloquently put it recently) our “sense of entitlement” here in the US. We make emotional decisions and scramble for logic (rationalizations) to back them up!

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green

After today I would say ban. They seem to sneak into my life even when I use my own bags.

Sandi Ratch

Okay, I got about as far as “in a culture like America, where freedom is deemed sacred” and got annoyed. Yes, in America, freedom is deemed sacred. I’m Canadian, currently living in Canada, but I spent a little more than 2 years of my life living in both Texas and Delaware. So I have some insight to the American psyche. And I have to say that I don’t see the ability to take a plastic bag home from the store as a personal freedom. Although I’m sure a lot of Americans do. When you look at the consequences of taking… Read more »

Penny Basket

i don’t see a plastic bag ban being enforced anytime soon in my country. usually companies would do it by free will, usually by taxing and donating the proceeds. so what i do is encourage friends and family to bring their own bag. i’ll also write to the supermarkets to voice out my concerns about the use of plastic bags and suggest taxing for plastic bags.


I’d prefer a ban, but if it’s going to be a tax, make it a prohibitive tax. 5$ a bag for small bags and produce bags, 7$ for regular sized bags. Extend it to all bags – trash bags, grocery bags, department store bags, everything. Use it like a windfall tax, a one time infrastructure creation thing, because it would definitely change people’s behaviors super fast. A ban on plastic bags is not “taking away their choice” It’s taking away ONE of their choices. They still have TONS of choices. Backpacks, reusable totes, net bag, cardboard box, purse, carry in… Read more »


I live in Kenya. Concern for environmental issues is generally low here: either because issues like poverty are more pressing, or because (I’ll make a bold generalisation and say that this applies to the rich but powerful minority) people couldn’t give a monkeys. The problem with a fee here is that it is received very differently by different people: Someone earning less than $5 a day isn’t going to like paying even $0.20 for a plastic bag. They will see it as unfair that the “rich people” (for whom it is peanuts) are allowed the luxury. Meanwhile someone at the… Read more »


Here in South Australia we banned plastic bags a year ago. There has definitely been behaviour change but there are still ‘escapes’. The heavy duty reusable bags like at department stores are still allowed, as are the small clear ones for fruit and veg. So our supermarkets sell heavier duty ‘reusable’ bags for 25c, and you see people buying a bunch of them if they forget their reusable bags. Also apparently sales of trash can liners have gone through the roof now people can’t reuse plastic bags for that! Still, some change is better than none, and it certainly has… Read more »


BAN!!!! We have a mandatory 5 cent fee here in Toronto, and I am sick of seeing people walk out of stores with 7 double bags of groceries, and being offerred “free” bags all hush hush. No, I am perfectly happy bringing it home in the bag I am already carrying. The fee has brought me the pleasure of seeing people walk around with items in their hands instead of bags. In Toronto, there is no mechanism to collect this new “tax”. Taxes require administration and that costs. My food coop has never given out plastic bags. Members bring in… Read more »


We have to stop using plastic bags. Although using less is good, ideally we would be using none. And so I would support a ban. I think we need to make it more than inconvenient to not bother bringing your own bags.

Sandra Lee

At this stage of the game, we need the plastic bag ban! People really grumbled about the bag tax in D.C. It wasn’t like it was an overnight hit. At any rate, free choice is a bit of an illusion.


About that ban, San Francisco’s seems to apply only to grocery and drug stores. When shopping at any other type of store (macy’s, crate and barrel, ross) , plastic is still the only offering. And grocery and drug stores (Lucky and Walgreens, to be specific) get around the ban by providing black plastic bags that are thicker than before, stamped with “reusable”!!! I’m all for a ban, but to be effective, it seems to me, that it needs to apply to ALL retailers, not just some. Otherwise, whats the point???


If a tax reduced single use bags by 65%…. wouldn’t a ban reduce them by 100%?

Tax, or ban… I’d be content with either….

And on the issue of resentment… puh-lease….visit a sea turtle hospital (or any other marine-life rescue), look to the trees, the sides of roads, waterways, our oceans, etc, etc, etc… plastic bags are a HUGE problem… who cares if some people feel “resentment”….just sayin.

Naturally, I’d vote for the ban :)

Lisa @ Mom's Green Shopping List

I’m all for a complete ban on plastic and paper bags. Even if I forget to bring my bag into the store there are always a few in my car so I just leave my cart for a minute and run back to the car. If it’s only a few items I’ll cram them into my purse before taking a plastic bag. I’ve even been seen balancing a stack of grocery items up to my chin. It’s not because I’m too cheap to pay the fee, it’s because I care about the environment all of the time not just when… Read more »


I’d vote for a fee over a ban. People make choices in ignorance. If they know the facts – the cost of plastic bags in the environment, they are far more likely to not use them. Nothing wakes us up like a stated charge for something (instead of hiding it in the cost of groceries, for example). The case you cited of the 43 shopkeepers agreeing to the ban is an example. They are no longer ignorant of the problem and acted accordingly. Charging a fee is placing a cost that, as someone else mentioned, can be made clear at… Read more »


about the knitting, I just recently discovered “plarn” and got a book from the library that has a crochet pattern for reusable grocery bags (it’s called “Craftivity”). there’s another knitting pattern from MagKnits (which is now defunct, but can still be accessed here: now I just have to teach myself to knit & crochet, probably easier said than done. we have incentives at a few stores here (long island) for using your own bags, it’s usually 5 cents off your bill per bag (and if you don’t remind the checker, they hardly ever take it off), but there’s no… Read more »


While I love that fish… I couldn’t say which solution is best- Here the city of Seattle politians showed they were spineless morons and basicallly let the bag tax fail, for fear the plastic bag makers lbby would come down hard on them, So nothing here in Seattle. There is talk of a styrofoam ban though.


An outright ban will be in the courts for years, and will probably end up being struck down. A fee is much more likely to be within the rights of a state to regulate. Of course, there is much more single-use plastic inside the bags than the bags themselves. So I think it’s really a moot point, but if there’s a fee it must be substancial. Right now, few people are stopped by the current fee on non-refillable beverage containers, it’s just part of the purchase price.


Ban them alltogether, I say ban them both, why not, people have plenty of things they can do for re-uable bags, I saw someone at my local farmers market handing them out like candy.. Also I am sure many plastic bags at home, I know tons of people who do… Why not re use those until you can get cloth ones.. I am just saying for the sake of our earth which provides us with EVERYTHING we need to live, BAN them! But I know no one will approve the ban them bothso ban the plastic at least and tax… Read more »


Should qualify my last point: anywhere I’ve seen bag fees in place after your purchase has been rung up you are asked if you want to use plastic bags at cost of___? The cost is not just added on automatically, you must request or agree to the plastic bags and charge.
This is what I was referring to when I said consumers have to make and state their decision at the time of each purchase.


Ireland is a great example of the success of a bag fee. They introduced a fee back on 2002 and (as an occassional visitor) it was great to see how quickly people’s behavior adapted. I truly think the average Irish consumer would be shocked to watch an American take home their weekly groceries, each item encased in plastic. After initial backlash while people adjusted, everyone would have their own supply of reuseable bags and would forget their old ways. However I do think the fee needs to be significant, I think DC needs to go much higher (ie. 25c). The… Read more »

Leanne Opaskar

I’m not in favor of a total ban on both paper and plastic bags — if only for the simple reason that even at the best of times, I occasionally forget to bring my bags, or do not have sufficient bags with me, if I’m making an emergency shopping trip. I do not need an infinite supply of reusable (usually mostly plastic unless you make your own!) totes any more than I need an infinite supply of cheap plastic bags, and I do not want to make extra trips if I don’t need to. I live in a car-mostly-mandatory area,… Read more »


Of course a ban is the way to go. It’s either have plastic bags or not… a no brainier. What does the writer mean when she says I would have probably taken the bag. I never take a bag at CVS even if my hands are overflowing
What message are u sending?


i have to say i agree with the ban. a fee is kind of dumb. five cents a bag? who’s gonna blink at a quarter out of their budget when they grocery shop. sure people will grumble about it, but they sure won’t stop. people (imo) prefer to complain rather than find a better way. since i started my attempt to eliminate plastic from my consumerism, I have noted a lot of crap: put plastic into a plastic bag and bring it home so kids can neglect, ignore, and destroy (or is that play to death) said plastic so it… Read more »


love the knitted fake plastic fish. do you have a pattern for it you could post?? I believe that paper bags are definately the lesser evil in the plastic vs paper battle since they can actually biodegrade easily in a home compost. Our major supermarket chain here implemented a 5cent fee on its plastic bags for a while last year but went back to free bags not long after because of the public upcry – even tho they admitted it resulted in a record reduction in plasticbags used by its customers. I think they main reason for the opposition was… Read more »

Lisa Radspinner

The knitting idea is a good one. We could post a few patterns to recycle these nasty bags. Maybe a pattern for a shopping bag or a rain hat???


I am all for a ban on plastic bags. If people are concerned about having a choice, then their choice could be paper bags or bring their own. When shopping, I always bring my own bag, or if I am biking, I bring a backpack and tell them I do not need a bag. As for paper bags, I use those in my small compost container as the liner. I used to purchase compostable liners, but they are so expensive, seems a waste. But as I sit here typing this, I guess I could use nothing in the container since… Read more »