The True Cost of Single-use Bags

Posted by — April 1, 2010 1:13 am

Our friends at Heal the Bay recently produced the following information about the true cost of single-use bags. We felt that this information is so important we’re posting it here to share with you. A BIG thanks to Heal the Bay for taking the time to put this together!

The True Cost of Single-use Bags


The Guinness Book of World Records has named the plastic bag the most ubiquitous consumer product of 2009 as it is produced on a worldwide scale by the trillions.  But what is the real cost of this throw-away consumer item?  There is an external cost to provide free bags, not just to the environment, but also to taxpayers and businesses Source reduction helps to avoid disposable bags in the first place and decrease these external costs.  Policy approaches, including pollution fees, have proven effective tools to achieve source reduction and positively change consumer behavior.

Plastic Pollution Devalues Our Economy and Threatens Jobs

Plastic litters our beaches, exacts a toll on our environment, and costs cities money to clean up.  In fact, plastic pollution alone is costing developing and industrialized nations up to $1.3 billion annually as it threatens the fishing, shipping and tourism industries. 

Plastic pollution threatens California’s ocean economy, valued at $43 billion. An estimated 408,000 jobs mostly in the tourism and recreation sectors are tied to the Ocean economy. 

The total cost of litter collection, disposal and enforcement in the U.S. is estimated to be at least $11.5 billion annually. Businesses bear the burden of this cost, spending $9.1 billion annually and representing 79.5% of the total cost of litter abatement.

Taxpayers Subsidize Cleanup and Litter Abatement of Single-Use Bags

Cities have estimated that the taxpayer cost to subsidize the recycling, collection, and disposal of plastic and paper bags amounts to as much as 17 cents per bag.  Given that Californians use 19 billion plastic bags annually, this equates to approximately $3.23 billion or $88 per person per year to subsidize the cleanup and litter abatement of plastic bags alone.

State agencies in California spend $25 million every year to clean up plastic single-use bags that end up in our waste stream.   This figure does not include the millions of dollars that local governments must spend in street sweeping, litter prevention and outreach programs, and cleaning up trash-impaired waterways. In 1994, the County of Los Angeles spent $4 million alone to clean up 31 miles of trashed coastline. 

States, cities, and counties together spend $1.3 billion on general litter abatement, which is equivalent to about $4.41 per capita, per year.  These are taxpayer dollars out of your pocket to subsidize the cost of waste. Much of this money could otherwise be redirected to pay for much needed public services such as parks, libraries, and public safety.

Business and Consumers Pay for ‘Free’ Plastic Bags

Retailers spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to provide single-use bags to customers.  For example, supermarkets can spend up to $1,500 to $6,000 a month just to provide single-use bags to their customers at the check-out.   Even major retailers such as Target and CVS are realizing this significant cost burden and are offering discount incentives to customers who bring their own bags. 

Stores typically pay 2 to 5 cents per plastic bag; these costs are embedded in food prices which are then passed onto consumers. This can add up to as much as $18 per person per year.

Paper Bags – Not Much Better for the Environment or Your Wallet

Paper bags are not a good alternative to plastic single-use bags because like disposable plastic bags they come with their own costs to the environment. Although some paper bags contain no old-growth fiber, contain some post-consumer recycled content and are recyclable, the production of most paper bags contributes to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and additional waterborne wastes.  

Businesses and Consumers Pay for ‘Free’ Paper Bags

Stores typically pay more for paper bags than plastic, anywhere from 5 to 23 cents per bag; these costs are then embedded in the food prices which are eventually passed on to consumers.  This hidden cost can add up to as much as $30 per year on your grocery bill.

The Solution:  Paper or Plastic? NEITHER

The key is getting consumers to avoid using disposable plastic and paper bags in the first place.  One reusable bag can replace hundreds of paper and plastic bags over its lifetime.  Several countries and cities worldwide have committed to addressing the single-use bag pollution problem. For example, Bangladesh, Belgium, China, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico City, Netherlands, New Delhi, India, South Africa, and Taiwan all have imposed fees, taxes, bans, or a combination to encourage consumers to switch to reusable bags, a more sustainable alternative. Collectively, these countries represent an estimated 25% of the world’s population that has committed to reducing single-use plastic bags.

References Cited:
  Guinness Book of World Records (2010).“Top 100 Records of the Decade: Most Ubiquitous Consumer Item.”Available at http://2010.guinnessworldrecords.com (Accessed on 1/7/10)
  McIlgorm, A., Campbell H. F. & Rule M. J. (2008). “Understanding the Economic Benefits and Costs of Controlling Marine Debris in the APEC region (MRC 02/2007). A report to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Marine Resource Conservation Working Group by the National Marine Science Centre (Univ. of New England & Southern Cross Univ), Coffs Harbour, NSW, Australia, Dec 2008.
  Kidlow, J. et al. (July 2005). “California’s Ocean Economy,” report to the California Resources Agency, prepared by the National Ocean Economics Program.
  National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study (2009). Prepared for Keep America Beautiful, Inc. by Mid- Atlantic Solid Waste Consultants. New Market, MD, Sept. 18, 2009.
  City of San Francisco Dept of the Environment “Bag Cost Analysis” (Nov.18, 2004).
  Total cleanup costs based on City of San Francisco baseline estimate multiplied by total number of bags used in California from data provided California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB). Population estimates for 2008 from U.S. Census Bureau’s Quick Facts. (Accessed 8/4/09).
  CIWMB. Available at: www.zerowaste.ca.gov/PlasticBags/default.htm (Accessed on 12/31/08).
  Los Angeles River Trash TMDL, approved by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, Aug. 9, 2007. 
  National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study (2009). Prepared for Keep America Beautiful, Inc. by Mid- Atlantic Solid Waste Consultants. New Market, MD, Sept. 18, 2009.
  Downing, J. “Free Grocery Bags Targeted for Extinction in California,” Sacramento Bee, Aug. 25, 2008. Estimates from bag manufacturers and the Food Marketing Institute.
  Horovitz, B. “Target, CVS Put Plastic Bags in the Bull’s-Eye, Pay for Reusables,” USA Today, Oct. 19, 2009.
  Los Angeles County (Aug. 2007). “An Overview of Carryout Bags in Los Angeles County: Staff Report to the Board of Supervisors,” Table 9. Based on assumption that average person uses about 600 plastic bags per year.
  Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage Plastic Shopping Bags – Analysis of Levies and Environmental Impacts Final Report, prepared by Nolan-ITU, December 2002, Page 33;  U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, “Energy-Related Carbon Emissions in the Paper Industry, 1994,” (Retrieved 12/31/08);  U.S. EPA Toxic Release Inventory 2006 data for Paper Industry-NAICS code 322. (Retrieved 12/31/08).
  Los Angeles County (Aug. 2007). “An Overview of Carryout Bags in Los Angeles County: Staff Report to the Board of Supervisors,” Table 9. Based on assumption that average person uses about 600 plastic bags per year.
  World Development Indicators 2008 population estimates. Available at: www.web.worldbank.org



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