San Diego could become the next big city in the state to limit single-use plastic bags. Dozens of California cities have restrictions on plastic bags, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and, closer to home, Solana Beach. The San Diego City Council is expected to consider a plastic bag reduction ordinance later this year.
Cities are choosing to reduce plastic bags — the ubiquitous, retail and grocery checkout kind — because they’re harmful to the environment. Plastic bags accumulate in the ocean and harm marine life.
Those plastic bags you saw on the side of the road on your way to work today? Whether thrown in the trash after one use or reused multiple times, those bags linger in the San Diego River or make their way to the ocean, where they last between 400 and 1,000 years.
Plastic bags also release toxins as they photo-degrade in landfills; about 95 percent of the 500 million plastic bags used annually in San Diego end up in a landfill.
While we all can agree on the harmful effects that single-use plastic bags have on our environment, some wonder if an ordinance restricting the use of plastic grocery bags would have a harmful effect on San Diego’s economy.
Available research tells us the answer is no.
Equinox Center, which supports the limited use of plastic bags, recently released a comprehensive study on the economic and environmental impacts of plastic-bag reduction policies. Our study calculated the impact of a reduction ordinance in San Diego based on data from other California cities. San Diego stands to reduce single-use bags by 86 percent — an annual decrease of 348 million bags.
Equinox Center found that local economies, including affected retailers and their customers, are not harmed in the long term. Plastic-bag reduction ordinances have been implemented successfully in 90 California municipalities.
Two of the largest cities with reduction ordinances, San Jose and San Francisco, reported “no sustained negative (economic) impact to retailers” after enacting the ordinances. A short-term increase in baggage costs, due to increased paper bag usage, is mitigated as consumers transition to reusable bags.
In fact, plastic-bag reductions are likely to eventually benefit the economy and save taxpayers and cities money. The city of San Diego most likely will experience savings through litter abatement. Plastic-bag cleanup isn’t cheap — it costs the city at least $160,000 a year.
In San Francisco, the Office of Economic Analysis released an assessment of projected economic impacts on the local economy related to the plastic-bag ordinance, including proposed increases in restrictions.
San Francisco’s assessment predicted a “slight positive impact on the local economy” as a result of the overall decrease in bag-related costs post-ordinance. It also noted that positive economic multiplier effects could occur alongside the projected increase in consumer spending associated with decreasing product costs passed on by retailers.
The study also reported that affected San Francisco retailers would see a savings of $3 million over the course of a year under the strengthened ban, no longer having to pay for so many single-use bags.
Plastic-bag reduction ordinances can spur new business. Los Angeles County, for example, reported that several local reusable bag businesses emerged post-ban to meet the demands of the new market for reusable bags.
For consumers, Equinox’s study showed households experience an estimated cost of $7.70 in the first year after the ban to buy reusable bags and to account for fees associated with paper bag usage. Recurring costs should decrease over time because of the long lifespan of reusable bags.
The ordinance under consideration for San Diego includes a 10-cent paper bag fee; shoppers would be charged for a paper bag if they do not bring their own reusable bag. The fee goes back to the retailer to partially offset the cost of the paper bags and to comply with the ordinance. Customers on government-assistance programs would be exempt from the paper bag fee.
Not everyone agrees with our position, but we hope we have cleared up some of the misperceptions surrounding the proposed plastic-bag reduction ordinance. Even if this hasn’t swayed you, consider this: Plastic grocery bags emerged for popular retail use only within the past 30 to 40 years. San Diego managed without them before, and we can manage without them again.
Kato is a policy analyst at Equinox Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and policy center based in Encinitas.