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Verde Laguna: California is choking on plastic

Paper or plastic? You see the dilemma, some don’t. The Plastic Bag Ban Bill, AB 1998, failed passage last week in the State Senate on a 14-21 vote. A ban that was designed to end the distribution of 19 billion plastic bags annually at retail outlets leaves us instead with a growing environmental problem that is extremely costly for local authorities, which are required to clean up plastic litter.

Whatever side of this issue you may be on, it’s helpful to know the facts:

“Last year, more than 70,000 single-use plastic bags were found on California beaches by volunteers in one day,” says Angela Howe, Surfrider Foundation.

Plastics have become the fastest growing segment of the U.S. municipal waste stream.


Plastic [especially plastic bags and bottles] is the most pervasive type of marine litter around the world, with 267 species of marine organisms worldwide known to have been affected by plastic debris.

Plastic debris is accumulating in terrestrial and marine environments worldwide, slowly breaking down into tinier and tinier pieces that can be consumed by the smallest marine life at the base of the food web, (source UN Environment Program or UNEP).

After the publication in June 2009 of the study “Marine Litter: A Global Challenge,” the UNEP head called for a worldwide ban on thin film plastic bags. Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, said: “Some of the litter, like thin film single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere. Other waste can be cut by boosting public awareness, and proposing an array of economic incentives and smart market mechanisms that tip the balance in favor of recycling, reducing or re-use rather than dumping into the sea.”

The American Chemical Council, a trade group, fought hard against the measure. It spent $242,000 over six months to hire five lobbying firms before the battle even reached its peak in July and August, according to the L.A. Times.


The chemical industry also wrote campaign checks to lawmakers for tens of thousands of dollars in recent months. Recipients included business-friendly Democrats in the state Senate who joined GOP colleagues to block the bill.

The organization also bankrolled a television advertising blitz that exploited the political anxieties of lawmakers already under fire for the state’s financial mess."California’s in trouble,” said the narrator in one ad. “2.3 million unemployed. A $19-billion deficit. And what are some Sacramento politicians focused on? Grocery bags.” (L.A. Times, Sept 2.)

Things should be happening differently. No doubt the state is in a financial mess and no matter who is in Sacramento, the problem remains. Angered by a troubled economy, Californians recalled Gov. Davis in 2003, and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger over an $8 billion budget shortfall. Now he is leaving with a budget shortfall of $26.3 billion dollars... yes, this is right.

Should or shouldn’t Sacramento discuss this measure as a relevant part of the equation? Yes, they have to, absolutely. It is madness to oppose change, to once again cast a vote to keep the status quo, despite a governor who, after the bill’s passage in the Assembly, said: “I commend the Assembly for passing AB 1998, which would make California the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags. This bill will be a great victory for our environment.” He was ready to sign the bill, which also had the support of Californians Against Waste, Heal the Bay, California Grocers Assn. and the cities of Berkeley, Carpenteria, Chula Vista, Del Mar, El Cerrito, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Malibu, Newport Beach, Palo Alto, Pasadena, San Clemente, San Francisco, San Jose, San Rafael, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, Sebastopol, Solana Beach and Ventura, among others.

As for the city of Laguna Beach, the fact that the issue was discussed by the City Council several times shows their concern. However, after the city of Manhattan Beach was challenged by the industry in court for failing to comply with California Environmental Quality Act requirements for an environmental impact report, the city decided to monitor Manhattan Beach’s appeal and in the meantime purchased reusable bags for the public’s use.

When shopping the other day the person at the register asked me “Wouldn’t paper bags have a heavier environmental impact, since they require more energy to manufacture, and produce more greenhouse gas emissions? Maybe biodegradable plastics will be better,” she said, before saying “thank you and have a great day” with a smile on her face.

Yet, within all of this, marine litter is harming the oceans and beaches, and is still an environmental burden, a human health issue and an economic problem that requires attention. Every year, marine litter results in tremendous economic costs and losses to individuals and communities around the world.

We understand that plastic bags are not free and that we pay for the clean-up. In California we spend billions to clean up beaches, parks and roadways, in addition to the cost to dispose of all this plastic in landfills. So, why not prevent pollution before it happens? Isn’t it better to eliminate the contaminants at the source before there is a chance that it pollutes our waters?


Next time, before anyone asks if you want “paper or plastic,” put your canvas carryout bag on the counter first.