Sweeping up California’s plastic bags

Plastic bags are easily incorporated into natural systems, and often end up in the ocean, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California's statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing that cycle (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

Plastic bags often end up in rivers and oceans, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing this problem (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

If you’re an environmentalist, California may be the ideal place to live. Not only is the state filled with extensive and diverse natural wonders, but California has traditionally been at the forefront of environmental conservation movements. Despite this tendency, it has taken years of failed legislation, and much work-around and energy from local organizations, for California to finally pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. The bill (SB270), which was introduced earlier this year by Senator Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, was passed by the Senate on Aug. 29 and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 30.

The ban didn’t come out of the blue. California, for all its environmental leanings, uses approximately 13 billion single-use plastic bags every year. Numerous cities and counties have passed local plastic bag bans in recent years. San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban bags when it enacted a law in April 2007. Malibu, Manhattan Beach and Fairfax followed suit within the next year, and by 2014, 88 California municipalities have been covered by plastic bag bans (the most recent was Davis, which banned plastic bags last October, effective this past July). Plastic bags, along with other plastic debris, are cluttering urban areas and natural ecosystems around the world, and can cause significant damage and death to wildlife. Rather than fight an unending battle attempting to clean up plastic litter, local governments have seen the benefit of simply removing single-use plastic bags from the equation.

The bag ban bill has had to fight opposition from several angles. In fact, a previous plastic bag ban attempt was introduced by Padilla last year, but was defeated by three votes. The main opposition comes from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents U.S. plastic bag manufacturers, and claims that a bag ban will result in significant job losses. Others worry that the bag ban will unfairly affect lower-income residents by imposing a 10 cent fee for paper bags. Senator Padilla and proponents of the ban remain unperturbed, citing the overwhelming successes of the numerous local and county bag bans over the past few years, and resident support for those bans.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is  a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

Don’t expect plastic bags to become rare collector’s items anytime soon, though. The ban won’t go into effect until July 1, 2015 for grocery stores, and July 1, 2016 for smaller convenience stores. And it doesn’t cover things like produce bags and plastic dry-cleaning covers.

California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a crucial step toward reducing the production of plastics that can end up in our waterways and in the ocean, but unfortunately our ecosystems already contain multitudes of plastics. One of the upcoming features of the new WCGA West Coast Ocean Data Portal is a Marine Viewer tool where marine debris cleanup data can be overlain with other datasets, including city and county bag bans, river and stream watersheds that may carry plastics to the ocean, and coastal surface currents that may affect plastic movements and deposition along the coast. In fact, one of the main goals for the oceanographic products that I’ve created during my Sea Grant fellowship has been to provide information on oceanographic movements that can be used in conjunction with debris cleanup datasets, to determine how plastics may move along the West Coast, and where they might land.

In the end, hopefully California’s plastic bag ban won’t be just another environmental law in our state’s long history of conservation movements. We should use it as key step toward urging our society to reject our ingrained single-use, throwaway mentality, in favor of preserving and reusing the resources we have.

The iconic "plastic bag video" from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California's recent statewide plastic bag ban, although not all disposable plastic bags will be phased out by the law.

“There’s so much beauty in the world” – The iconic “plastic bag video” from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California’s recent statewide plastic bag ban.

 

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