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Environmental Committee Explores Ban On Single-Use Bags

This article was published by 3/11/2009

The following is a submission by reader Brett Beck, a local environmental leader involved with Surfrider, the Sierra Club, TreePeople and more.  He is also the Chair of the "Rise Above Plastics" campaign in Long Beach.

On Monday, the Environmental Committee of the Long Beach City Council met and I attended to understand what the City of Long Beach is doing to lead in the issue of plastics and their use, disposal, recycling and proliferation.  After almost an entire year of not meeting (the last committee meeting was in April 2008), our City Councilmembers O’Donnell, Lowenthal and Reyes-Uranga reconvened with a short agenda where the issue of single-use bags and the waste and pollution they cause in Long Beach and throughout California was the main topic.

City staff reported on other municipalities and how they are addressing the issue, including San Francisco, which seemed to be the only city that has enacted a ban and hasn’t been sued or unable to enforce the law due to court action brought on by the plastic industry.  This was attributed to the fact that San Francisco had passed legislation before the plastics industry was ready.  It was also reported that more recently the City of Santa Monica has been working on a plastic bag ban and paper bag fee but is threatened by a lawsuit by the “Save the Plastic Bag Coalition”.  Obviously, this isn’t a bunch of grassroot community members banding together for a cause but a plastics industry-funded political action committee.  A representative from Heal the Bay explained how the plastic industry changed the debate when a ban on plastic bags came up to how a ban would proliferate the use of paper.  So, the discussion now is focused on the ban or tax of all single-use bags.

The City of Long Beach Environmental Committee is now looking at the endorsing Assembly Bill 68 that would put a 25-cent fee on all single-use bags statewide.  This bill is currently in Sacramento and is part of a statewide strategy to reduce marine debris adopted by the California Ocean Protection Council.  A similar law in Ireland saw a 90% reduction in single-use bags.  The city is also considering joining Santa Monica, San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, Manhattan Beach, Pasadena, Encinitas, San Clemente, Marin County and Los Angeles County in a Master Study that could be used by municipalities to produce an EIR.  This is just the tip of the plastic iceberg because after we get through the issue of bags, bottles and wrappers can’t be far behind.

Many of us do our best to recycle and bring our own bags and cups but with the convenience of plastic bags, cups, containers, etc., it is extremely hard not to use plastics at least a few times everyday.  So our first solution was to just bury the stuff and move on.  Most recently we have started recycling programs and done a good job in Long Beach boasting a 69% diversion rate.  Unfortunately, recycling has not kept up with the growth in our production and use.  Also, because plastics do not biodegrade and last forever every single piece that has been buried, littered, blown away in the wind or whatever for the past 40 years, is still there, in one shape or another.  They do start photodegrading that creates a whole new set of issues.

The Environmental Committee is simply at the tip of the issue addressing the issue of single-use bags… and it is an uphill battle.  The threat of lawsuits deter swift action and an Environmental Impact Report is now being required to ban plastic bags.  During the meeting, the reason behind this was questioned by Councilman O’Donnell as it seems counter-intuitive that plastic bags could possibly be good for the environment.

An egret sits on a trash boom.

During the meeting’s public comments, stories of Long Beach residents trying to do their part to clean up the bay were told.  Dr. Carole Harris spoke of using her pool net and standing on her dock every weekend pulling plastic trash out to Alamitos Bay.  Sarah Michael told of canoeing in Rainbow Harbor and picking up plastic bags in the water and then filling them with trash as she paddled around.  Another resident who rode her bike to the meeting has developed a foot trick to scoop up plastic bags as she rides along the street.  It was sad commentary, especially when you look at the research conducted by Dr. Marcus Eriksen and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and see the samples of birds, fish and other wild life that have ingested so much plastic debris that fills their intestines and knowing we are the cause.

Here in Long Beach, grassroots community groups like the local Surfrider Chapter have implemented the national Surfrider campaign called “Rise Above Plastics”.  Beth Barnes, past Surfrider Chapter President said, “In the only Surfrider city without waves, we are excited to lead in this effort to start addressing the long term health and environmental issues that single-use plastic bags and products are causing in our oceans.  Long Beach can and should be a leader and support the elimination of single-use bags.”

It is important that legislation specific to plastic waste be passed, because as of now legislation is limited to bulk waste management and does not address the special problems posed by photodegradation, in the absence of biodegradation, of plastics and its attendant toxicity for life on earth. Plastics may be releasing pollutants because of their original additive components. Additives like, Nonylphenols, PBDEs, Phthalates, and Bisphenol A (BPA), are added to plastic during production to catalyze monomers into polymers and give it different properties like flexibility,  durability and UV resistance. Some of these chemicals are considered hormone-disrupters.  Significant human exposure to BPA has been documented, and a number of small epidemiological studies have reported a relationship between blood levels of BPA and abnormalities such as miscarriage, ovarian disease, and obesity in humans. With the acceptance that plastic marine debris is a legislative issue we may actually begin to make changes in what has become a terrible problem.

"California has a proud history and tradition of protecting our ocean. And we have the same kind of proud history and tradition of leading the country in our efforts to make sure that all of our oceans are clean, safe and productive."
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor, State of California

“The base of the marine food chain is being displaced by a non-digestible, non-nutritive component which is actually out-weighing and out-numbering the natural food. That is our core issue.”
Captain Charles Moore, Founder, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Long Beach, CA