Plastic Bags, Plastic Oceans, Plastic People

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By Jim Smith

What’s wrong with plastic bags? First, they are non-biodegradable, meaning they will outlast you, and the way things are going, the entire human race. They can blow away even if you put them in a garbage can. They can end up in a tree, on a fence, or worse, in a storm drain where they will soon be swept out to sea to eventually join billions of their kind in the Texas-sized North Pacific Gyre, otherwise known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the Pacific Trash Vortex. The BBC reports that a similar, but smaller, trash dump has recently been discovered in the Atlantic Ocean, east of the Bermuda islands. While churning around in mid-ocean, the bags break up into smaller and smaller bits of plastic. Unfortunately, sea birds, turtles and fish think the little bits of plastic are good to eat. Illness or death is often the result. What goes around, comes around, when humans eat fish that have toxic chemicals throughout their bodies from the plastic bags, they too get sick.

Most of these alarming facts about plastic bags are well-known. One would think that Americans would curtail their current annual use of 100 billion plastic bags (and 12 million barrels of oil) which make their way to the gyre or to land fills. Unfortunately, the main reaction from the public is indifference and the reaction of the plastic bag industry is to file suit against nearly every effort to reduce the use of the bags. A few cities have heeded their constituents and have taken steps to rein in “single use bags,” with varying success.

The most successful is San Francisco which has had a ban on plastic bags since 2007. San Francisco and Malibu and the only two cities in California not to feel the wrath of the plastic bag industry’s litigation. Manhattan Beach was not so lucky. The city’s ordinance against the bags was overturned by the courts. The industry sued on the grounds that the ordinance against plastic bags violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Another case of amoral lawyers using an environmental law against the environment and bringing in the big bucks. Since then, cities and counties have been careful to create an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before enacting a law that either bans or charges a fee for single use bags (whether plastic or paper).

Grocery stores are the main distributors of plastic bags. Beginning in 1977, we consumers gained the choice of paper or plastic bags. A touch choice. Should we destroy a forest or should we gum up the oceans? The familiar reframe at the checkout line was “paper or plastic?” That lasted for about a decade or so. Then we started getting plastic bags unless we asked for paper. There was a good economic incentive for sticking us with plastic. Environmental Engineer Coby Skye, with the County’s Dept. of Public Works says that plastic bags cost only one or two cents each while paper bags range from a nickel to eight cents.

Perhaps this is why a couple of weeks ago when I was in Ralphs Market at California and Lincoln, and again had forgotten to bring a cloth bag, I asked for paper bags, and was told that all they had was plastic. Imagine my surprise when I protested to the night manager (who I was sure would rectify the situation). Instead of sharing my alarm, she called security and had me escorted out of the store. The indignity! Never had I been 86ed from a second-class Ralphs before. But Venice is full of environ–mentally-conscious residents who must badger the Ralphs managers repeatedly. She must have been at the end of her tether.

Some of the grocery chains have made token efforts to reduce single use bags. Ralphs has “incentive” programs in some corporate divisions, however, they seem to be a fairly well-kept secrets. The Trader Joe’s at Palms and Sepulveda has a biweekly drawing you can enter if you used a cloth bag. The grand prize is $25! The “Captains” as the bosses are called tell me that each store has its own rules and prizes. Try to find a store that offers $30! Whole Foods, in spite of its anti-health care and anti-union attitudes has eliminated plastic bags from its stores. Smart and Final on Lincoln Blvd., on the other hand, offers only plastic bags. No paper. And Costco has no bags at all, only recycled boxes.

Still, it seems that government regulation is going to be required. Why not have a statewide law and be done with it? That’s been tried with no success so far. The last two bills were both bottled up in the Appropriations Committee. One bill, AB2449, did pass. It bans not plastic bags but instead bans local government from enacting a fee on plastic bag use. The plastic bag industry, like many large corporations, seems to be particularly strong in Sacramento.

Closer to home Venice cannot restrict plastic bags since we have no government at all (the neighborhood council doesn’t count). The city of Los Angeles has actually banned plastic bag use, but only in city facilities. According to City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, the city is now waiting for action by the county before it proceeds. The county is putting the finishing touches on an EIR which could be used by all 88 cities in L.A. County.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s Senior Deputy Susan Nissen told the Beachhead that the Board of Supervisors would likely consider an ordinance in July or August of this year. While the County’s ordinance would only apply to unincorporated areas, such as Marina del Rey, it would set the tone for the city of L.A., Santa Monica and surrounding cities. A full ban in all of the county would eliminate around six billion bags per year.

Coby Skye says the county’s EIR will likely begin a 45-day public comment period next month. The EIR would give legal cover to either an outright ban on plastic bags and a fee for paper bags, or a fee on both plastic and paper. Skye believes a fee of 25 cents could drastically reduce the number of single use bags. Then, we might remember to bring our reusable bags with us. Perhaps the overriding question is how much is it worth to us to begin to save the oceans – and the planet.

What You Can Do:

  1. Don’t use plastic bags.
  2. Keep a reusable bag.
  3. Support legislation to ban or charge a fee for single use bags.

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