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California's pioneering plastic bag ban delivering results, say environmental groups

Greta Mart/KCBX

A year after California enacted a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, environmental groups say early data shows a significant dip in plastic trash. 

Each September thousands of California volunteers clean up trash in their communities. They count how many items - like foam pieces and food wrappers - they find.

“Going back as far as I can remember with these annual litter clean-ups, plastic bags were one of the third, fourth, or fifth most common items that were found on California beaches,” said Mark Murray with Californians Against Waste.

Murray said the bags have dropped out of the top 10 in many communities since grocery and retail stores were banned from using them a year ago. But he notes, tallies from this year's "Coastal Clean Up" are still incomplete - some local groups have not yet submitted their data.

Kera Panni of the Monterey Bay Aquarium - which works to fight ocean pollution - hails the bag ban as a good first step in reducing plastic waste. But she argues global production of single-use plastics is growing exponentially. 

"If we don't slow down in how much of this stuff we make and use we will just have a growing problem on our hands,” Panni said. “And as plastic moves through ocean food webs we know that it can have impacts on wildlife and ecosystems and might even impact human health.”

California was first state in the nation to pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags but the law carved out an exception. That's why you still see them in grocery stores - they're allowed for meat, bread, produce, bulk items and perishables.