Community Commentary: City made right call on bags

I applaud the city of Huntington Beach for joining scores of other Californian cities and counties that are exploring or have already banned plastic bags ("Plastic bag ban in works," Aug. 18).

They should be commended for helping to protect our public space, namely our beaches and waterways, which make our city such a great place to live and are the lifeblood of our community. This proposed ban is something the state Legislature has come close to passing on multiple occasions, only to be turned back by special interests such as the American Chemistry Council through a concerted lobbying effort involving millions of dollars.

The goal of this ordinance should be to motivate people to use reusable bags rather than plastic or paper. What's important to note about plastic bags and the reason for so many ordinances statewide is that while they account for less than 1% of the waste in landfills, they can make up as much as 25% of the litter found in public spaces such as parks, beaches, waterways, storm drains, etc. and cost cities approximately 17 cents per bag to clean up once they are in the litter stream. No other product can boast such an incredible disparity. I believe that is why the council chose to focus on T-shirt-style grocery bags rather than produce or meat department bags, dry cleaning bags or newspaper bags.

Also important to note is the fact that we have been paying for plastic and paper bags all along in the form of embedded costs in products we buy — in fact, every product in the store has a fraction of the total cost included in its price. The cost can range from 3 cents to 20 cents per bag depending on the store — these are the costs inherent in providing a "product" at the checkout stand. This ordinance would require grocers to be up front about the charges. As for the prior embedded costs, I hope this ordinance and others in the region force grocers to back out these costs since they are motivated by the smallest margins of price difference in their sales. It should be noted that the state has prohibited the ability of cities to place a fee on plastic bags, but not paper.

Now, paper bags pose their own set of environmental concerns given the raw source (trees) and the amount of energy necessary to produce them. However, they have been deemed as an acceptable alternative in a pinch, and in Los Angeles, it was determined that paper bags were the lesser of two evils, but they assigned a 10-cent fee to discourage a simple transition from plastic to paper bags.

Various estimates put the number of plastic bags consumed every year to be 6 billion in Los Angeles County alone. And while the statewide recycling campaign has enjoyed a large degree of success, only around 5% of plastic bags are recycled every year. Some have suggested the city require plastic bags to be biodegradable instead of banning them, but unfortunately, these bags can ruin entire batches of recycled products if they are mistakenly thrown into our blue recycling cans.

Others have pointed out that they reuse plastic bags for household trash and picking up animal waste. While this type of "reuse" is helpful and appreciated for its thriftiness, it does not address the thousands of bags reaching our parks, beaches and waterways, lessening our quality of life and killing marine life that mistakenly thinks they are squid or jelly fish. Perhaps we should try using produce or meat department bags, newspaper covers or bread bags for animal waste and purchase biodegradable bags for our trash. These may not be "free" options, but considering their cost at the checkout stand and for the city to clean up, plastic bags were never "free."

Cities and counties rightfully look to each other for examples of successful program implementation, so I am confident the city attorney will do her research and recommend a legally defensible ordinance and city staff will recommend a campaign to educate the public about reusable bags, offer free reusable bags as an incentive at various locations (especially to the elderly on fixed incomes) and track the amount and type of litter found in our parks, beaches and waterways. Yet again, I will have another reason to be proud to live in Huntington Beach!

BROC COWARD is a Huntington Beach resident.

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