It's time for the state of California to follow the lead of more than 50 of our cities and dump the plastic bag.
Named by Guinness World Records as "the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world," single-use plastic bags are a leading source of pollution worldwide, including in California. Californians use and throw away 12 billion (yes, that's billion with a "b") of these bags each year with devastating consequences for marine life.
Once plastic bags and other plastic trash leave our shores, they collect in the ocean where they eventually break down and form a kind of toxic soup. After all, plastic bags are made from high-density polyethylene — a byproduct of oil and natural gas. The famous Pacific Garbage Patch is increasing in size and density daily and is now twice the size of Texas. And according to some estimates more than 1 million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die annually in the north Pacific from ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris that includes plastic bags.
The good news is that California Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who has been fighting against plastic pollution for years, has once again introduced a bill to phase out plastic bags from California's supermarkets, retail pharmacies and convenience stores.
(Contact your State Senator to ask them to vote "YES" on AB 298).
Brownley's bill, AB 298, won't just protect our environment; it will also benefit our economy. Because plastic bags, like so many things in life, are not actually free. The Los Angeles Times, which editorialized in favor of the ban on plastic bags in that city, pointed out:
"Plastic bags became popular because they seem cheap and convenient. But it turns out they seem cheap only because the true costs aren’t assessed directly to the seller or the buyer, but to all of us when we bear the burden of environmental degradation and cleanup... Law or regulation is required when the free market and habit lead us to do things that produce hidden and unacceptable costs. That's the case with single-use plastic bags.
California currently spends an astounding $25 million to collect and bury the 12 billion plastic bags used every year. Local agencies spend millions more to clean up and dispose of plastic bags. Considering the state's ongoing budget challenges, these are resources that could clearly be put to use elsewhere.
Encouraging consumers to use reusable bags will also support green jobs at local companies creating reusable bags. These companies have tapped into growing consumer demand and become part of a thriving and sustainable California-based industry.
If it makes so much sense for the environment and for consumers, why hasn't California already banned the bag?
Flash back to 2010, the last time the state legislature had the opportunity to ban the bag. The chemical industry group American Chemistry Council and other plastic bag manufacturers spent millions on lobbying, media advertising and contributions to legislators (including lawmakers representing areas where local bag bans were popular) to defeat Brownley's bill, AB 1998.
The opposition was so fierce and sudden that it led Brownley to comment: "I've never witnessed this kind of opposition to a bill." (Click here for a detailed article on the chemical and plastic industry's tactics, and which lawmakers they may have won over).
Fortunately, Assemblymember Brownley hasn't given up the fight. Her new proposal, AB 298, is the logical extension of what many cities have already done on their own--many of them inspired by Brownley's original bill. Over 50 municipalities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Malibu, Fairfax, and Palo Alto have banned plastic bags along with countries like China, and parts of Mexico, Europe, Africa, and Australia.
AB 298 will create one uniform state policy for addressing all types of single-use bags to encourage consumers to use reusable bags--an approach favored by the California Grocers Association (CGA), which supported Assemblymember Brownley's original bill in 2010 and has supported local and regional bans since then. CGA President Ronald Fong said the creation of a level statewide playing field “provides the most environmental gain with the least competitive disruption for our retailers... The future is in reusable bags. It's the right thing to do."
One last thing. If they could speak, millions of sea birds, fish and other marine animals would ask us to stop using the wasteful plastic bags that are polluting their ocean home. They can’t, but you can speak for them. Contact your State Senator and ask him or her to vote "YES" on AB 298.