Oceans Get Some Relief: California Bans Plastic Bags

California leads the nation once again as the first state to ban plastic bags.

But immediately after Governor Brown signed the law, special interests sprung into action. Plastic bag manufacturers say they will put a referendum on the ballot to repeal the law, which goes into effect next July. 

That’s when large supermarkets like Walmart and Target can no longer offer plastic bags at checkout counters, to be followed by smaller stores in 2016. We especially like that it applies to liquor stores, which give out black plastic bags that aren’t accepted for recycling. Grocers can still supply bags for produce and can charge people 10 cents for paper bags.

The state legislature took up the law after more than 127 cities, towns and counties – including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose – implemented bans. 

"This bill is a step in the right direction – it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks and even the vast ocean itself," says Governor Brown. "We’re the first to ban these bags, and we won’t be the last."

Sea otter mom removes a plastic bag from its pup:

Plastic Bags
credit: Terry McCormac, Seaotters.com

Indeed, Chicago, Austin, Seattle and Portland, Oregon have banned the bags along with every county in Hawaii – making it a defacto state-wide ban. 
Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Puerto Rico and 150 cities have pending legislation,  affecting 49 million people. 

"Americans use on average nearly one plastic bag each day, taking something made from fossil fuels formed over millions of years and generally using it for mere minutes before throwing
it away. The energy required to make 12 plastic bags could drive a car a mile. While plastic bags are recyclable, the vast majority never make it that far. Instead they end up in landfills or blow out of trash bins or garbage trucks-clogging storm drains, getting snagged in trees, or littering streams, lakes, and beaches. In nature, plastic breaks into smaller pieces, but it never
fully disappears. Plastic refuse poses dangers to wildlife and to humans as chemicals leaching from discarded plastic enter water supplies and travel up the food chain," explains the Earth Policy Institute. 

Industry Fights Back

California attempted to pass a state-wide ban in 2010, but  industry lobbying killed the bill. There have also been attempts to ban plastic take-out containers, and many cities have a partial or total ban on polystyrene food containers

Although they lost this time, both the plastic and paper bag industries did their best to misinform the public about the law.
The trade group, American Progressive Bag Alliance, aired TV commercials warning that it would "jeopardize thousands of state manufacturing jobs, hurt the environment and fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets." 

And that’s even though the law includes a provision where manufacturers can get $2 million in loans to help them shift production to reusable bags. 

Similarly, the American Forest and Paper Association, bemoans the fact that people might be put out by a 10 cents fee on paper bags. But the law waives fees for people on public assistance and limits how supermarkets can spend the proceeds.

"Data from the over 121 local plastic bag bans, like Los Angeles City, Los Angeles County, San Jose and San Mateo has proven that bans are effective at reducing litter and changing consumer attitudes, and have refuted industry’s claims of apocalyptic impacts on jobs and poor communities," counters Leslie Tamminen for the Clean Seas Coalition. "A state plastic bag ban saves taxpayers huge amounts of money spent on litter cleanup, and protects the environment." 

Plenty of other industries are against these bans: petroleum and chemical companies, state food merchant associations, bag wholesalers and distributors and American Chemistry Council (represents plastic and chemical companies. They lobby in every city, often winning, pushing for bag recycling instead of bans. 

"From the thousands of sea turtles that are now safer from plastic bags to the thousands of volunteers who remove these bags from our beaches and rivers, this bill means a cleaner ocean for everyone. Nothing we use for a few minutes should pollute our ocean for hundreds of years," says Nathan Weaver of Environment California, one of the many groups who fought for the ban for the past 10 years.

Californians currently use over 10 billion plastic bags every year and recycle less than 5% of them. Across the US, that number rises to 100 billion – surely, it can’t be that hard to switch to reusable bags.

There’s no better example of this needless litter than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, known as the North Pacific Gyre – twice the size of Texas.  A new documentary, Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is available here.

More details on the problems of plastic bags, how they came to be ubiquitous and places that have banned them around the world (including China and India) and in the US:

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