In the Pacific Ocean, 1,000 miles off the coast of California, teeming just below the surface of the water is a mass of garbage twice the size of Texas known as the Pacific Garbage Patch. Most of the garbage (figures range from 70% to 90%) is plastic, and much of that is from single-use plastic bags.
Most of the plastic in the Garbage Patch has broken down into tiny pieces that are not even visible from the surface of the sea or the air. But those miniscule pieces of plastic pose a serious hazard to marine animals, who consume the indigestible plastic and die. So-called biodegradable or compostable plastic does not degrade in ocean water.
On World Oceans Day 2009, Achim Steiner, the Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme, called attention to the problem of litter in our oceans. Steiner called for an outright ban or rapid phase-out of single-use plastic bags, stating unequivocally that “there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere.”
Around the world, countries such as Bangladesh, Australia, and France have heeded this clarion call by banning single-use plastic bags, which are made of a thin plastic film. Many other nations, such as Ireland, have imposed taxes on single-use plastic bags; by doing so, Ireland immediately reduced plastic bag usage by 90%. Always a leader in environmental awareness and action, California cities have attempted similar plastic bag bans, only to be thwarted by legal challenges from the Save the Plastic Bag coalition. Now, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, has introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 1998, which would ban single-use plastic bags in the state of California. Stores that provide paper bags would be required to charge customers not less than $0.25 for a paper bag. The bill defines a store as a supermarket; a store with over 10,000 square feet or retail space with a pharmacy; or a chain convenience food store with 10,000 square footage or more. (Small, mom-and-pop type grocery stores with less than 10,000 square feet of retail space would therefore not be affected by this bill.)
Green Cities California created a document to assist municipalities that are considering such bans to comply with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) in providing an environmental impact review of plastic-ban legislation. The Master Environmental Assessment notes that not all attempts to curb plastic bag usage have been successful. According to the Assessment, studies show that three important components to any attempt to curb plastic-bag use must be considered:
- Education. Consumers must understand why single-use plastic bags should be phased out of use.
- A ban on plastic. Studies have shown that imposing fees on plastic bags is not effective; consumers simply switch to (free) paper bags.
- A fee on single-use bags, including paper bags. Legislation that bans plastic but allows paper use to continue with no disincentive fails to live up to the spirit of environmental law, which is to change practices that harm the environment. Paper bags may not be responsible for polluting marine waters and choking sea birds and fish, but the manufacturing of paper bags consumes a great deal of natural resources. It is not prudent to simply substitute plastic bags for paper ones.
AB 1998 attempts to address all three of these vital components. To discourage consumers from using paper bags, a substantial paper-bag fee of $0.25 per bag is imposed. The paper-bag fee will be used for cleanup activities, litter and pollution prevention programs, and public education and outreach. The bill includes reasonable restrictions on use of the monies for administrative purposes. It also includes a provision for donations of multi-use bags to low-income residents.
At this moment in history of relatively improved environmental awareness, why is AB 1998 necessary? The reality is that incentives for bringing your own bag to the grocery store or the wide availability of inexpensive reusable bags have not been enough to change the behavior of most California shoppers. AB 1998 is a radical and important bill because it attempts to fundamentally change one facet of consumer behavior: the expectation that wherever and whenever you shop, a bag will be given to you, free of charge. In the current scheme of things, it’s up to the invidual consumer to determine whether or not to re-use or recycle the bag or toss it in the trash; it’s up to you to remember that a single-use bag (whether plastic or paper) consumes resources and pollutes the environment, at no immediately obvious cost to you. The paper-bag fee is hefty, no doubt. But to be effective, the fee needs to be steep enough to make consumers think twice before heading to the grocery without a reusable bag or two in hand. AB 1998 is, at its core, about making a small change in our behavior that will greatly benefit our oceans, waterways, and the environment in general.
Critics of the bill say it taxes consumers at a time when people can least afford it, and that low-income residents or shoppers who use public transit will be disproportionately impacted by the tax. I say, give us a little more credit than that. (See here for ideas for free or cheap reusable bags.) Changes in behavior are hard at first, but we humans are actually highly adaptable creatures. Over 35 Bay Area cities have total or partial bans on styrofoam. Does anyone miss styrofoam anymore? As a frequent bike/pedestrian shopper, I can vouch first-hand that reusable totes are in fact much more convenient and easier to carry than a plastic or paper bag.
Downstream changes like the fee for paper bags – changes that affect the consumer, rather than the producer – will force a change in consumer behavior with regards to single-use bags, a change that is urgently needed. UNEP, the Coastal Conservancy, the Sierra Club, Environment California, and many other informed groups believe that AB 1998 is one significant step towards change. And, with regards to the Plastic Bag coalition, I just have to ask: Really? Isn’t there anything else out there that is more worthy of your time and energy than a campaign to save the plastic bag?
So please join me in supporting AB 1998, and let’s put into practice the idea that small but thoughtful actions actually can make a difference.