A blog set out to explore, archive & relate plastic pollution happening world-wide, while learning about on-going efforts and solutions to help break free of our addiction to single-use plastics & sharing this awareness with a community of clean water lovers everywhere!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bag Bans Will Keep Harmful Plastic Out of the Ocean

Published October 7, 2014 by Peter Lehner in the Natural Resources Defense Council staff blog

Like anyone who spends time in the water, I’ve had more than a few unpleasant encounters with floating trash. Abandoned dinghies, nets, buoys, mylar balloons, dead birds and fish, and above all, plastic. Around the world, people dump about 20 million tons of plastic into the ocean every year, much of it in the form of flyaway plastic bags. This waste doesn’t get magically swallowed by the ocean--it lingers indefinitely, posing a threat to marine life and to human health.
 plastictrash_mink.jpg
(Soft Drink Cans and Plastic Bottles Going for a Swim, by Mink, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Picking up garbage in the ocean is an expensive proposition, so the smart solution is to stop this waste at its source. That’s why California—with its 840-mile coastline and a 13-billion-bag-a-year habit, just became the first state in the nation to ban single-use plastic bags.

As vast and powerful as our ocean seems to be, it is vulnerable. For one thing, plastic in the ocean doesn’t disappear. Those flimsy bags that tear so easily under the weight of a milk carton stay intact for decades in the ocean, where they can hurt marine life as well as human health. Whales and turtles mistake floating bags for squid or jellyfish, and seabirds, like albatross, feed bits of plastic to their chicks—eating plastic can lead to starvation, malnutrition, or internal injuries. Some plastics contain toxic substances that can kill or harm reproduction in fish, shellfish, or any marine life.

The prevalence of plastic in the ocean has scientists concerned not just for marine ecosystems but for human health as well. Plastic doesn’t degrade completely—it’s pretty much around, in some form, for centuries. Plastic debris absorbs and concentrates toxins from seawater. When sea creatures eat plastic, those toxins accumulate in the food chain, putting human health at risk.

Plastic waste hurts city budgets, too. NRDC reported last year that 95 California cities, coastal and inland, spend nearly $500 million a year to clean up litter and keep trash out of waterways. The recycling rate for plastic bags, wraps, and the like is only about 12 percent.

My NRDC colleagues in California have been working with a broad coalition of environmental and community groups, retailers, and Latino leaders to develop smart, thoughtful legislation to reduce the burden of plastic pollution and protect California’s valuable ocean resources. The law Governor Brown signed last week will ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags from groceries and pharmacies starting in July 2015, and liquor stores and convenience stores from July 2016.

Customers who don’t have their own bags will still have the option of buying a compostable plastic bag, a recycled content paper bag, or other reusable bag for 10 cents. The fee will be waived for low-income shoppers who participate in the state food program. What’s more, the law includes an appropriation of $2 million to create and retain jobs by helping manufacturers of single-use plastic bags switch to production of durable, reusable bags.

California is the first state to ban throwaway plastic bags, but this move started in the cities. San Francisco was the first U.S. city to ban the bag back in 2007. Today, more than 150 cities and counties are implementing bans or fees on bags to reduce plastic waste, including Chicago, New York, Austin, Dallas, much of Hawaii, and Washington, D.C. Scaling these changes up to the state level—especially in a big, coastal state like California-- makes a real difference in protecting our oceans. Keeping 13 billion bags out of the water every year is a very good start.

 [This post is part of our Wasteland series, featuring people, towns, businesses and industries that are finding innovative ways to cut waste, boost efficiency and save money, time and valuable resources.]

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Comments (Add yours)

GuthrumOct 7 2014 06:40 PM

Banning plastic bagging, while well intentioned, could have unexpected results. I have shopped at some stores that do not offer bagging of any kind. So what do people use to carry their groceries out in ? I have seen many use small garbage bags: again, plastic. Many are bringing in paper bags that some stores hand out freely: using more paper, made from trees. Some have non-disposable bags made from - plastic ! These do get worn, dirty, and end up in the garbage. Some bring cardboard boxes: paper again.
So any benefits from this law are going to be miniscule, and may actually make things worse. This was someone's bright idea that sounded great and gets a lot of news coverage, but won't make any difference.

SamOct 8 2014 09:33 AM

I find it amusing that plastic bags are banned in a country where guns are mostly legal. If it is the human who pulls the trigger that you hold responsible for murder, why not hold the person who litters responsible? Or rather, why not educate people to be careful with their litter if they're really dumping plastic bags and other trashes in waterways and whatnot? And fine them if they are caught littering!
But more likely, the question should be, whose trash is it that ends up littering the ocean? I'd bet good money that most of them originate from people living in less developed or developing countries. So really, this policy will do nothing to change anything about ocean littering.

john craigOct 8 2014 12:49 PM

i used the same paper lunch bag for almost a year - then composted it. paper and cardboard can be made from hemp, is very environmentally friendly and sustainable.

JulieOct 8 2014 06:35 PM

Bag bans absolutely make a difference. In the community where I live (fairly affluent community in Northern California) bag litter decreased by over 90% in our creeks and on streets. Purchasing behavior also changed. People bringing their own bag increased from 35% to almost 80% and that was with just a ten cent charge. Every City that has passed a bag ban reports similar results. And people shopping at mega stores like Costco haven't received a bag for years and fared just fine, just a shoppers in Europe have for decades.
Product bans work. Or oceans and future generations deserve us doing our best to reduce plastic litter.And consider that 80% of our ocean litter comes from land. If we're not part of the solution we are part of the problem.

Susan AlterOct 8 2014 11:59 PM

I used to work on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, and I was constantly picking up the leavings of visitors and cleaning up after loggers. Small streams, ponds, lakes and other waterways would become clogged with garbage and other debris left behind, because some people are just crude or careless. They will have pristine yards and dirty Parks all over the world. Sometimes wildlife is affected, because they die from being entangled in it or are poisoned by some substance carelessly discarded. I really have a great deal of respect for folks that are respectful and clean up after themselves. Thank you to those civilized and decent people.

Paula JohnsonOct 9 2014 07:12 AM

$.10 a bag? most will spend $.10 per bag at a grocery store for bagging purchases? Or recycling used bags until they wear out? This is a societal solution for keeping one type of litter off the shoreline? Very interesting solution to a problem of establishing a ethical standard of individual behavior.
social utility assumes a measurable benefit vs. a cost. Sadly, this has no premise to improve the pollution of the shoreline, nor the costs of keeping the shoreline clean. simply the social utility of passing the costs to all persons.
Look for the solution: Instilling a reverence for our planet and understanding our relationship with it and our societal expectation that we treat it with great respect. Spend the money in education of our populace.

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