How We Did it: Banning Plastic Bags in the Bay Area and Beyond

To learn more about California’s journey to a statewide bag ban, check out our interactive timeline.
To learn more about California’s journey to a statewide bag ban, check out our interactive timeline.

For the last 6 years, Save The Bay has worked publicly and behind the scenes to build the progress necessary to secure today’s victory at the statewide level. 80 percent of Bay Area residents live in a jurisdiction that has adopted a plastic bag ban and the rest of our region is now covered under California’s statewide bag ban. How did we get to this point?

In designing our “The Bay vs. The Bag” campaign, we asked ourselves one important question: What could compel Bay Area city council members and county supervisors to pass a plastic bag ban in their communities? Let’s explore this journey and the underlying strategy that guided us toward success.

A commitment:

To hold cities and counties accountable to taking action on plastic bags, we needed their commitment to the overall goal of reducing pollution flowing into the Bay. That’s why in 2009, we succeeded in getting the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board to adopt a regional permit that regulates trash flowing from storm drains into our Bay, with the requirement of reducing stormwater trash by 70 percent by 2017 and by 100 percent by 2022.

A trend:

By pressuring key cities to adopt bag bans, we could make it easier for future cities to get on the bag ban band wagon. It would be important to maintain momentum and create the perception that “everyone is getting on board” with bag bans, so that cities yet to adopt a ban would feel the pressure to take action. In 2009, we launched our “The Bay vs. the Bag” campaign to eliminate plastic bag pollution in the Bay Area by working to enact city and countywide plastic bag bans and create a regional trend.

A model:

We needed a major city to take the lead and demonstrate that a plastic bag ban was politically feasible and made good economic sense. That’s why, in 2008, we began working to get the Bay Area’s largest city, San Jose, to adopt a plastic bag ban. Two years of meetings with city council members, organizing local and regional groups, gathering and reporting bag litter data, and engaging neighboring cities to pledge their support finally led to success in 2010.

Partnerships:

In order to appeal to specific regional interests and lawmakers, we needed to build regional partnerships with the organizations and groups who held sway in the community. This proved to be especially important for the business community, to address city officials’ concerns about potential economic impacts of a bag ban. In working to pass a countywide ban in San Mateo, we partnered with the California Grocers Association to make the case that plastic bag bans will benefit the Bay and that consistent policies across city borders make the most sense  for residents and grocers.

Information:

One major need Save The Bay filled was educating city staff and officials about the extent of the plastic bag litter problem, its impacts on our Bay, and what other cities were doing to address this problem.  We gave presentations and provided case studies and fact sheets to dozens of cities, influencing their decision to pass bag bans. Citing data from shoreline and creek cleanups, we made the case that plastic bags were littering the Bay in huge numbers; in 2009, we estimated that over 1 million bags flowed into the Bay each year. We were also able to point to San Jose as a success story: one year after their ban went into effect, bag litter decreased by 89% in the city’s storm drains and 69% in its creeks. Communicating these compelling stats – both on the scope of the problem and the effectiveness of the solution – helped us convince cities to adopt bans.

Public support: 

A final and crucial piece of our strategy was to demonstrate public support of a plastic bag ban, both to hold elected officials accountable and provide them with the ammunition they’d need to stick their necks out and vote in support of a bag ban. Over the last 4 years, we’ve mobilized our community through online petitions in over 14 cities and counties, and outreach efforts in countless others. These petitions are often cited by decision-makers in their supporting statements for a bag ban.

To learn more about California’s journey to a statewide bag ban, check out our interactive timeline.