Opinion

L.A.'s plastic bag problem hasn't been solved, and it may be killing some of our most beautiful sea creatures

When it comes to enacting bans on plastic bags, the reasoning sometimes sounds remote. You’ve probably heard of the vast soup of plastic known as the Pacific Gyre, an ocean vortex twice as big as Texas filled with bits of plastic. You may or may not know that there are similar plastic patches in oceans around the world.

As horrible as those garbage patches sound, however, in the minds of many, the convenience of plastic bags may outweigh those faraway concerns.

But reasons to support banning of plastic bags are sometimes closer to home than you might think.

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Thousands, probably tens of thousands, of marine animals in the world die each year from ingesting plastic bags, which can’t be passed through their digestive systems and thus end up filling their stomachs. The endangered green sea turtle, a resident of mostly the tropics, is especially vulnerable. To its eyes, the bags look like jellyfish, its favorite delicacy.

As it happens, a colony of these sea turtles lives in the lower San Gabriel River, the northernmost year-round group known to exist. You can often see them between the 2nd and 7th street bridge crossings; most often, they’re hanging around the warm-water effluent from the power plant there, which is believed to be the reason they’ve taken up residence. They can be behemoths, up to 500 pounds and 5 feet in diameter, but finding them usually requires a little patience, gazing at the areas of the river where the effluent roils the waters. After a while, there’s a good chance of seeing a lazily waving flipper, or a head or carapace.

Their existence was confirmed by scientists in 2008, thought people had reported occasional sightings as early as the 1980s — and weren’t believed.

But their existence in this urban, channelized river also means that plastic bags that find their way into the San Gabriel River from any of the dozens of communities upstream can easily be washed down to the turtles’ hangout and become a dangerous meal.

The city and county of Los Angeles have bans on plastic bags in most large stores, as does Long Beach, which lies adjacent to that part of the river. But that’s not true of most of the cities in the southeastern part of the county or San Gabriel Valley — those lining the river or just beyond its banks.

The issue is a regional one as well. Bags find their way into the coastal waters off Los Angeles from many sources — streams, channelized rivers, storm drains. The turtles also venture into the ocean, largely to look for food, according to Rick Nye, biologist at the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge a little south of the river. He spoke to a group of visitors during one of the refuge’s monthly tours. Both turtles and plastic bags make their way into the refuge, Nye said — which means that any plastic along the coast, from whatever source, can make its way into turtle habitat.

It’s not known whether plastic bags have killed or injured the local population of turtles, simply because not much is known about them in general. There could only be a few or they might number in the dozens. But at least one already had to be rescued after it became entangled in fishing line that had been cut free.

California lawmakers passed a statewide ban on plastic bags in 2014, but the ban is on hold pending a referendum in November seeking to overturn it. We shouldn’t let the plastic bag industry, which is behind the referendum, get away with this. The environmental damage we cause is thousands of miles away — and right here in our backyard.

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