Conservation & Science

Why plastic bag recycling isn’t enough

“I recycle my plastic bags already. Why should I support Proposition 67?”

It’s a good question, and one we get often. First, we applaud your efforts to recycle. And it’s great you’re doing your research on Prop 67, the California ballot referendum to uphold the statewide ban on single-use, carryout plastic bags.

Unfortunately, recycling has its limitations in tackling the global challenge of ocean plastic pollution. And the reasons might not be obvious.

Plastic bags dominate a recycling conveyor belt. “Sunset Park SIMS Material Recovery Facility” by Garrett Ziegler is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Too expensive to recycle

Many people recycle their single-use plastic bags, either in grocery stores or in their curbside recycling bins. But it’s still not making much of a dent in the numbers heading to the landfill. Of the approximately 15 billion single-use plastic bags that Californians use each year, only about 3 percent are ultimately recycled.

Instead, the bags notoriously jam recycling machinery. As a result, cities and counties spend an enormous amount of time, labor and money removing plastic bags from the recycling stream.

Recycling alone won’t keep plastic bags out of the ocean. Single-use plastic bags, in particular, go everywhere. They’re so lightweight, they easily blow out of recycling bins, trash cans, garbage trucks and landfills—making them one of the largest sources of accidental litter. Animals often eat these bags, or get tangled up in them. Plastic bags also clutter our open spaces and clog our storm drains.

Gift and Bookstore staff showing their support of saying
The Aquarium’s Gift and Bookstore are happy to replace single-use plastic bags with these reusable ones.

Bag bans work

But here’s some good news: Studies show that bag bans work. There are more than 150 local bag bans in place throughout California, and they have helped to significantly reduce plastic-bag litter (and save millions of dollars in associated clean-up costs). Plastic bags are the fourth most commonly found item in international coastal cleanups, but they’re a lot less prevalent where bag bans are in place.

For example, since San Jose’s bag ban law went into effect in 2012, the city has seen 76% fewer plastic bags in creeks and rivers, 69% fewer in storm drains, and 59% in park and roadside litter. After almost every jurisdiction bordering the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary banned plastic carry-out bags, the number of bags removed during beach clean-ups has dropped by 70%.

Consider the positive impact a statewide bag ban would have in California—a state with the third-longest coastline in the U.S and the sixth-largest economy in the world!

Monterey Bay Aquarium urges a YES vote on Proposition 67 to uphold the state law banning single-use plastic carryout bags statewide. We also recommend a NO vote on Proposition 65, which would further delay the ban’s implementation.

Still not convinced that plastic bags blow? Check out this parody on the “adventures” of plastic bag litter.

Learn more at

Featured photo: Single-use plastic bag on the seafloor. Photo by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program; Our Deepwater

2 thoughts on “Why plastic bag recycling isn’t enough”

  1. So I didnt see anything here that shows recycling isnt enough.
    All I seen was more proof that people are not recycling their plastics.
    All this says to me is that if ALL plastic was recycled it would be enough.


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