Environmental activists emphasize the benefits of reducing the use of plastic bags. Plastics are a huge portion of what ends up in our oceans and have a dramatic effect on marine life. As a long time Surfrider Foundation member myself, I’ve participated in over 50 beach clean ups in the last year, and have seen firsthand the amount of plastic that invades our coastal areas. In both California and on Long Island, where I’ve cleaned beaches, I’ve learned that plastic is a pervasive issue, and that no matter how many times we clean up after ourselves, the plastic keeps showing up. A ban or disincentive to use plastic bags appears to be a sustainable way of addressing this problem.
Since 2008 10 US cities have prohibited the use of plastic bags. Four cities in Oregon: Eugene, Corvallis, Newport, and Ashland, are considering banning plastic bags in retail stores. More cities across the country, and other countries, are adding taxes or fees to plastic bags to help prevent ocean pollution and raise revenue for struggling local governments.
Besides causing extreme pollution that ends up in trees and waterways, plastic bags often are not recycled. The plastic industry says more than 90% of Americans reuse their bags at least once, but the EPA estimates that they are recycled at less than one-third the rate of paper bags.
In 2002, Ireland imposed a plastic grocery bag tax, and San Francisco became the first US city to ban plastic grocery bags in 2007. Los Angeles followed in 2010.
In December of 2007, large supermarkets and chain pharmacies in the city of San Francisco were prohibited from distributing plastic bags at checkout. BPI certified compostable bags, reusable bags, or paper bags made with a minimum of 40% post consumer recycled content were given as alternatives. Legislation such as this intends to reduce the amount of single-use plastic bags consumed and disposed of in the city.
The fight to ban plastic bags in Seattle seems to be heating up. Last year, a gray whale that washed up on a Puget Sound beach was examined and used as evidence that thin-film carryout shopping bags should be outlawed. Included in the whale’s stomach were sweatpants, a golf ball, surgical gloves, small towels, and more than 20 plastic bags. While scientists have said these items were not the cause of death, surely none of those belong in there. Puget Soundkeeper Chris Wilke agrees that we should be thinking more about the waste we create, but that it’s hard to know how effective a bag ban would be on litter.
Humboldt Baykeeper and its Board of Supervisors have worked for over a year to develop a plastic bag ban ordinance for the county. They host a monthly movie night with Surfrider called Ocean Night where they have often advocated for banning single use bags with films including “Bag It” and “Addicted to Plastic.” For their second year in a row, they are hosting “Day without a Bag” on December 15th. You’ll find them at local grocery stores screen-printing bags with their “Ban the Bag Humboldt” logo.
Humboldt Baykeeper Beth Werner reminds us that “plastic bags are often found in beach clean-ups and in debris along highways where they migrate downstream and ultimately into the Pacific Ocean.” She cites the Pacific Gyre, also known as the Pacific Garbage Patch, as a prime example of what our reliance on plastic is doing to our coastal communities. “The Garbage Patch is not a plastic island; rather the entire water column is full of tiny plastic particles from the bags that are photodegraded, broken down by sunlight, on the surface.” Marine species often mistake these particles for plankton. Since fish can ingest these particles, this issue becomes a human health issue when we in turn ingest the fish.
San Diego Coastkeeper, Ventura Coastkeeper, and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper all work hard to educate their county about the dangers of plastic. Read about their efforts on their websites. What I’m wondering is, when will the East Coast catch up? We also suffer from a reliance on plastic, and it’s visible in our waterways and on the sides of our highways. I encourage you to talk with your Councilmembers about what a plastic bag ban can do for your community.
Read about passed bans here.