Plastic bag bans

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to decrease disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to decrease or eliminate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Plastic bag bans prohibit the manufacture, use, and provision of single-use plastic bags, either partially or completely1, 2. Plastic bag bans are usually implemented with education and outreach to explain the reasons to reduce single-use plastics3. Plastic bag ban legislation can include fees for alternative disposable bags to encourage consumers to shop with their own reusable bags4. Plastic bag bans are often part of a governmental effort to reduce single-use plastics more broadly and to encourage change where industry efforts and voluntary actions have not achieved desired results5. Single-use plastic bags made from petroleum-based plastics are not biodegradable; they persist as pollutants in the environment for hundreds to thousands of years, break down into microplastics, and accumulate in land and water ecosystems1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7. Plastic bags made with natural gas break down slowly with exposure to sunlight into organic molecules; however, the process requires sunlight, so bags cannot be buried in a landfill, and it still takes 500 years or more3.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Reduced single-use plastic bag availability

  • Reduced single-use plastic bag use

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced litter

  • Reduced plastic waste

  • Improved wildlife habitat

  • Increased wildlife protection

  • Reduced emissions

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is some evidence that plastic bag bans reduce the use and availability of single-use plastic bags covered by the ban2, 4, 5, 8. Well-designed bans can increase use of reusable cloth and paper bags, and instances of shoppers not taking a bag4, 5. Bans that prohibit only lightweight plastic bags can have unintended consequences increasing availability and use of thicker plastic bags1, 2, 4, 8. Experts suggest bans are the most effective way to manage the growing crisis of plastic bag litter1, 4. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects, especially in the U.S. context.

In a Philadelphia-based study, a plastic bag ban reduced plastic bag use, increased paper bag use, and overall reduced use of disposable bags5. In a Chicago-based study, a ban decreased lightweight plastic bag use; however, many stores instead offered free, thicker plastic bags containing five times more plastic than standard grocery bags, undermining any environmental benefits8. Multicomponent regulations including comprehensive bans and disposable bag taxes or fees are more effective at reducing the use and environmental impact of disposable bags than narrow bans8.

Bans in Africa, Asia, and Europe have reduced use of plastic bags covered by the legislation; however, reductions vary from 20% to 90% and more research is needed to confirm effects1, 6, 9. Regulation design, capacity to monitor and enforce implementation, and substitution options influence effectiveness and vary substantially between countries1, 6, 9, 10. Some substitutions for single-use plastic bags are not environmentally friendly, especially alternative plastics such as thicker plastic bags, trash bags, or plastic wrapping products together1, 6, 10. The effectiveness of bans is undermined by the power of the plastic industry, which lobbies for self-regulation, emphasizes consumer responsibility, and urges business solutions rather than government regulation1. Bans are also undermined by thriving black markets and retailer resistance, especially in developing countries1, 9.

Well-designed bans can reduce air and water pollution from the production, use, and disposal of plastic bags4. Bans can reduce waste and litter11. Plastic bags disposed of on land can be blown into lakes, rivers, or oceans and become plastic pollution which has devastating effects, including strangulation from entanglement and fatal digestive complications, on marine mammals, sea turtles, sea birds4, fish, and endangered wildlife1, 3. After animals eat plastic, toxic chemicals are found in their tissues, which then can enter the human food chain2. Plastic bag litter clogs sewer drains and waterways, which increases flooding and standing unclean water that can breed bugs and harmful bacteria1, 2, 3. Plastic bags and single-use plastics use fossil fuels for energy and production materials, generating greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate climate change12, 13.

Successful bans include education to help consumers understand reasons and benefits of reducing one-time plastic bag use, which improves consumer attitudes, motivation, and behaviors3, 6, 7, 10. Educational components can include school instruction to teach students about oceans, waste management, and pollution; children can be influential in changing behaviors among their peers, their families, and their communities7. Governments should engage as many stakeholders as possible when designing legislation and policies to curb plastic pollution2. Legislation can be part of comprehensive initiatives that include financial incentives for consumers, retailers, and manufacturers supporting awareness, innovation, and research and development of sustainable, recyclable alternatives that fit within a circular model of production, consumption, and recycling2. Plastic bag bans that include fees charged for paper bags may be more successful in encouraging consumers to bring their own reusable bags4. Plastic bag bans, taxes, or recycling requirements need to be enforced to have environmental benefits3, 10, 11. Experts suggest a global treaty and multi-component, comprehensive efforts are needed to address the transient nature of plastic bag litter and to support a circular economy that recovers and recycles existing plastic bags and limits the creation of new plastic waste1.

Plastic bag litter imposes large costs on society1. Plastic bags cannot be recycled with standard equipment; bags clog and damage recycling machines and repairs are expensive3, 5. An Ohio-based study estimates that dealing with discarded plastic bags at the local level costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year14. California’s plastic bag and litter clean-up costs are estimated at over $400 million annually3. International reports estimate aquatic ecosystem damages from plastic litter and microplastic pollution to be approximately $13 billion in U.S. dollars each year1, 15. Tourism around the world has lost significant revenue because plastic bag litter reduces the recreational value and visual appeal of landscapes and the seashore1, 7. Critics of plastic bag bans note that they increase inconvenience for shoppers, increase costs for alternative bags, create an enforcement burden for governments, and may cause job losses and disinvestment in the plastic industry1, 9. Alternative disposable bags have their own environmental costs; for example, paper bags are easy to recycle, but require more energy to produce than plastic bags5. Manufacturers of plastic bags suggest plastic bags can be cost-effective if used within a comprehensive recycling program; however, many environmentalists disagree, noting the extremely low recycling rates for plastic bags3.

An Ohio-based study suggests most consumers support reducing access to single-use plastic bags with legislative bans and store policies because voluntary actions are not sufficient14. Across the U.S., plastic bag legislation varies by geography and depends on political party control of state legislatures. State-wide legislation is more likely to be adopted in states where local legislation already exists, in areas with more green, sustainable efforts underway, and in states with more shoreline area16. State preemption laws limit plastic bag legislation adoption in eighteen states, mostly in the Midwest and the South16, 17.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: suggested by expert opinion.

Plastic bag bans have the potential to decrease disparities in exposure to plastic pollution, especially between communities of color with low incomes and white communities with higher incomes19. Available data shows plastic production facilities and waste management facilities including landfills, waste incinerators, and legal and illegal hazardous waste sites are disproportionately located in communities with more residents of color and people with low incomes19, 20. Conventional waste management practices disproportionately impact the well-being and health of communities of color with low incomes20. Approximately half of all plastic bags are disposed of after only one use and data estimates suggest the world generates 8.4 million tons of plastic bag litter annually1, 2. This contributes to air, land, and water pollution around the globe1, especially in communities experiencing concentrated poverty19. Plastic bag bans are an opportunity to address and begin to remedy the environmental injustices communities of color with low incomes have suffered from plastic waste and plastic pollution19.

There is the potential for plastic bag bans to generate extra expenses for people that were using single-use plastic bags for secondary purposes such as to pick up pet waste or as small trash bags; it would be a relatively greater burden to buy alternative products for people with lower incomes than people with higher incomes21. Research is needed to assess whether some populations experience a greater burden from inconveniences caused by plastic bag bans, including among people of color, people who are older, people with lower incomes, and people using public transportation14. These potential effects of plastic bag bans could be alleviated by and largely depend on how retailers and policy makers design, implement, and enforce the bans14.

What is the relevant historical background?

Plastic is cheap to manufacture, versatile, strong, and durable, which has made it a major part of consumer culture around the world9. Plastic production has been on the rise since the 1950s, with many plastic products designed to be discarded after only one use2. In the 1970s, manufacturers introduced plastic bags that were lightweight and easy to store, could be produced in large numbers, and were waterproof16. Plastic bag production increased rapidly and by the 1990s about 60% of bags offered in stores were plastic16.

About one trillion plastic bags are produced every year, a massive source of consumer waste with severe environmental effects16. In 2015, plastic bags made up 47% of the roughly 6,300 metric tons of global plastic waste and only 9% of that plastic waste was recycled, while 12% was burned and 79% was buried in landfills or abandoned in the environment6. Data show that only 1% of plastic bags are recycled globally1. China is the largest generator of plastic bag waste and the U.S. is the largest per capita generator of plastic packaging waste6. Plastic litter, including plastic bags, has accumulated in the oceans in such massive quantities that the world has named one debris-filled region the Great Pacific Garbage Patch1. The plastic industry has misled the public for decades, falsely claiming that plastic recycling is a viable solution to the plastic waste crisis to prevent regulation or legislation from addressing plastic waste and pollution22. However, recycling plastic is not technically or economically possible for most types of plastic. Collecting, sorting, cleaning, and processing plastic requires costly infrastructure and the potential is very limited by wide variation in types of plastic, by toxic and chemical additives in plastic that leach during processing, by the degrading quality of the recycled product, and by limited demand22. In many areas, plastic products will be collected for recycling and then put in landfills22.

In 2002, Bangladesh was the first country to pass plastic bag ban legislation to address this issue, after severe floods were exacerbated by plastic bag litter in 1989 and 1998, killing many people and leaving two-thirds of the country covered with water1, 2. Plastic bag legislation has tripled since 2010 and plastic bag bans are the most common form of government legislation used to address plastic pollution9, 11. In September 2014, California became the first U.S. state to adopt legislation addressing single-use plastic bags; this law did not ban plastic bags, however, it prohibited businesses from providing them for free3. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) started a global campaign in 2017 to reduce plastic litter that encourages all countries to stop the spread of single-use plastic bags and microplastics3.

In the U.S. there are several state legislatures using state preemption laws to prohibit local governments from regulating or restricting plastic items. Michigan was the first state to pass a preemption law in 2017 that prohibits any local law from addressing disposable plastics, including bags, Styrofoam containers, or other packaging. Efforts to block plastic bag bans and disposable plastic regulations primarily protect the profitability of the plastics industry2.

Equity Considerations
  • What neighborhoods in your community suffer from a disproportionate burden of plastic litter, environmental pollutants, and waste hazards? How could a plastic bag ban be part of a multicomponent, comprehensive environmental initiative to reduce plastic in your community?
  • What obstacles to plastic bag bans exist in your community? Has your state passed preemption laws that prohibit local actions against plastic bags or other plastic industry regulations? What coalitions, community, and grassroots organizations could advocate for plastic bag bans and plastic reduction initiatives in your community? How else could your community resist the power of the plastic industry and support innovation and more sustainable alternatives?
  • How well does your community understand the environmental implications of plastic litter? What educational outreach opportunities are there to raise awareness, develop support for plastic bag ban legislation, and change consumer and retailer behavior?
Implementation Examples

As of January 1, 2024, statewide plastic bag bans in the U.S. have been implemented in twelve states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington17, 18. Hawaii’s ban on plastic bags covers the state but was implemented on a county-by-county basis17. As of 2021, plastic bag legislation has been implemented in more than 500 cities and towns across 28 states18. The National Conference of State Legislatures highlights Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle as notable cities with plastic bag bans17. Internationally, 172 countries have some form of legislation regulating single-use plastics, which in many cases include bans on single-use plastic bags6.

As of 2021, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin are the 18 states with preemption laws that prohibit local governments from adopting plastic bag bans17.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

EA-Plastic pollution toolkit - Environment America (EA). Single-use plastic laws in Pennsylvania: PennEnvironment's toolkit for passing bans and other laws tackling plastic pollution and litter in your municipality. February 10, 2023.

EA-PBB calculator - Environment America (EA). Plastic bag bans work: Single-use plastic bag ban waste reduction calculator.

UNEP 2018 - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Single-use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability. 2018.

Project Drawdown-Plastics - Project Drawdown. Climate solutions: Reduced plastics.


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1 Muposhi 2021 - Muposhi A, Mpinganjira M, Wait M. Considerations, benefits and unintended consequences of banning plastic shopping bags for environmental sustainability: A systematic literature review. Waste Management and Research. 2021;40(3):248-261.

2 UNEP 2018 - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Single-use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability. 2018.

3 Kish 2018 - Kish RJ. Using legislation to reduce one-time plastic bag usage. Economic Affairs. 2018;38(2):224-239.

4 EA-Sokolow 2024 - Sokolow L, Meiffren-Swango C, Engstrom J. Plastic bag bans work. Denver: Environment America (EA); U.S. PIRG Education Fund; Frontier Group; 2024.

5 Ferran 2023 - Ferran DB, Bhanot S. Evaluating the ban: Philadelphia's plastic bag ban and changes in bag usage in the city. City of Philadelphia; 2023.

6 Adeyanju 2021 - Adeyanju GC, Augustine TM, Volkmann S, et al. Effectiveness of intervention on behaviour change against use of non-biodegradable plastic bags: A systematic review. Discover Sustainability. 2021;2(13).

7 Xanthos 2017 - Xanthos D, Walker TR. International policies to reduce plastic marine pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 2017;118(1-2):17-26.

8 Homonoff 2022 - Homonoff T, Kao LS, Selman J, Seybolt C. Skipping the bag: The intended and unintended consequences of disposable bag regulation. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 2022;41(1):226-251.

9 Nielsen 2019 - Nielsen TD, Holmberg K, Stripple J. Need a bag? A review of public policies on plastic carrier bags – Where, how and to what effect? Waste Management. 2019;87:428-440.

10 Banu 2019 - Banu N. Single-use plastic ban and its public health impacts: A narrative review. Annals of SBV. 2019;8(1):13-18.

11 OECD-Cornago 2021 - Cornago E, Börkey P, Brown A. Preventing single-use plastic waste: Implications of different policy approaches. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2021: Working Paper 182.

12 OECD-Plastic - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Plastic leakage and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing.

13 Project Drawdown-Plastics - Project Drawdown. Climate solutions: Reduced plastics.

14 Bartolotta 2021 - Bartolotta JF, Hardy SD. Ban the bag: Support for plastic bag reduction strategies in Northeast Ohio. Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education. 2021;(174):61-84.

15 UNEP 2014 - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Plastic waste causes financial damage of US$13 billion to marine ecosystems each year as concern grows over microplastics. 2014.

16 Bell 2022 - Bell L, Todoran GS. Plastic bag legislation in the United States: Influential factors on its creation. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. 2022;12:260-271.

17 NCSL-State PBB legislation - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). State plastic bag legislation. February 8, 2021.

18 EA-PBB calculator - Environment America (EA). Plastic bag bans work: Single-use plastic bag ban waste reduction calculator.

19 UNEP 2021 - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Plastic pollution is an environmental injustice to vulnerable communities: New report. March 30, 2021.

20 Martuzzi 2010 - Martuzzi M, Mitis F, Forastiere F. Inequalities, inequities, environmental justice in waste management and health. European Journal of Public Health. 2010;20(1):21-26.

21 Li 2017a - Li Z, Zhao F. An analytical hierarchy process-based study on the factors affecting legislation on plastic bags in the USA. Waste Management and Research. 2017;35(8):795-809.

22 CCI-Allen 2024 - Allen D, Spoelman N. The fraud of plastic recycling: How Big Oil and the plastics industry deceived the public for decades and caused the plastic waste crisis. Center for Climate Integrity (CCI). February 2024.

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