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Viewpoint: It’s a mixed bag for the future of our ocean’s health

I was beyond disappointed when our senators in Sacramento sacked the bill calling for a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. The bill was intended to reduce already-unmanageable plastic waste by choosing a form of plastic that is, let’s face it, unnecessary.

First introduced in 1977 as an alternative to paper bags, plastic bags now account for 80 percent of all bagged groceries. They are difficult to recycle for the same reason they are convenient: so light they fly out of curbside recycling bins (often lacking lids). Even if the bags make it to a recycling plant, they too often wrap themselves around machinery, gumming it up. That’s why most curbside recycling programs don’t accept them. Charging for single-use bags would motivate shoppers to bring their own bags or remind those who have them not to forget them. This change would boost the pace of weaning consumers off this blight on wildlife, the ocean and the landscape.

How on Earth could this bill — supported by an overwhelming alliance of business, environmental, and community groups — fail to pass? Voice your gratitude to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a petrochemical industry and plastic lobbying group that reportedly provided campaign contributions to a number of California senators. The ACC is so well organized, it even set up a phony department dedicated to this misguided cause: Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA). The following quotes from their website raised more questions of my own (in brackets).

PBA purports to “... create positive change in our communities by promoting the increased recycling of plastic bags as well as their proper use [Don’t you just put stuff in them, stuff that can go in any reusable bag, which would not require recycling or become trash?], reuse [Seems seriously unrealistic since Environmental Protection Agency research has shown that only 1 percent of plastic bags get recycled.], and disposal [So the onus is on the consumer to fully prevent the light-as-a-feather bags to be, for example, blown hither and yon by the wind despite that they were responsibly placed in a recycling receptacle?]. We recognize that more can be done to address environmental concerns [Why not instead focus energy on improving meaningful plastic products like bike helmets and prostheses?]. We work to create solutions [In what ways, PBA? Why hasn’t it listed in detail all its good works?] to reduce the number of plastic bags that end up in our landfills and, sometimes, as litter [Sometimes? If you really cared about reducing in these ways, wouldn’t it be easier and smarter to simply not make the bags in the first place?]. Together with policy-makers, businesses and community members, PBA is dedicated to implementing new ideas and improving existing programs that make a difference [How can this be when PBA worked against these groups to secure failure of the single-use plastic bag bill?].”

PBA even lists “Major Myths Behind Plastic Bag Bans.” For instance, instead of saving oil by banning the bags, in PBA’s reality, a ban would increase overall energy use and, perhaps, oil use [Huh?]. Then there’s the “myth” that we would not solve the litter problem by banning the bags. [I don’t think it would completely solve the litter problem but it would certainly make a dent.]. The PBA said a ban will only cause a switch from one form of litter to another [What? PBA doesn’t think we are capable of reusing our own reusable bags. I’m insulted!].

Locally, Sen. Denise Ducheny (D) and Sen. Mark Wyland (R) both voted against AB 1998, despite hundreds of requests from their constituents. Who did support the bill? Our Senator Christine Kehoe (D). Something to consider for upcoming elections.

One step forward; one step back. We, as individuals, are the true defenders of our planet. Experts may help guide us on complex issues, such as with the Seafood Watch program (Tide Lines, Oct. 7, 2010), but we can easily use our own good common sense for straightforward issues, like reusable bags. A proverb coined more than 200 years ago aptly applies to today’s single-use plastic bags: “Waste not, want not. The less we waste, the less we lack in the future.”

— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to