It's in the Bag: California Ban on Single-use Plastic Bags Is a Win for Oceans

Posted on 01 October 2014

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By Karen Garrison

Natural Resources Defense Council

On Tuesday, we toasted healthier oceans and Governor Brown’s leadership in signing a landmark law to help keep the estimated 13 billion single-use plastic bags used in California every year from polluting our waters and lands. Building on the action taken by more than 100 local communities in the state, State Senator Alex Padilla authored SB 270 to ban single-use plastic bags from distribution by major retailers. He did an outstanding job of building a broad coalition of support. The Senator himself said it well: “A throw-away society is not sustainable. With SB 270 we have an opportunity to greatly reduce the flow of billions of single-use plastic bags that are discarded throughout our state. This is good for California and reflects our values as a state that cares about the environment, sea life and wildlife.”

For ocean lovers like me, the enactment of this statewide ban is a thrilling win, because we know how devastating these bags can be to marine life.

Flyaway plastic bags are one of the most prevalent trash items found in the water and on beaches due to their extensive use and persistence in the environment. Once they reach the ocean, the bags can continue to do harm way beyond our lifetime. At least 50 species of seabirds are known to ingest trash—much of it plastic—leading to starvation, suffocation, internal injuries, and infections. Sea turtles, whales, and other marine life also suffer.

Photo credit: NAME

The bags contribute to a massive plastics problem in our oceans. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that at least 88 percent of the surface of the world’s open oceans is polluted by plastic debris, much of it in the form of tiny particles resulting from the breakdown of larger plastic objects. Plastic has accumulated in the biggest concentration in the North Pacific Ocean, due west of the California coast. “Ocean currents carry plastic objects which split into smaller and smaller fragments due to solar radiation," says Andres Cozar, the lead author of the study. "These micro plastics have an influence on the behavior and the food chain of marine organisms." The findings raise significant worries about the risks faced by sea creatures living or feeding in this contaminated soup, and about the impact of this pollution on food webs.

According to another new study, published in the journal Science, small plastic fragments not only float in the water but are nearly ubiquitous in coastal sediments around the world. Those bits of plastic debris easily accumulate harmful chemicals from seawater. Ingestion of the dangerous particles by marine mammals, fish, birds and invertebrates is now well documented. Lead author Kara Law notes, "We are putting… a large amount of a synthetic material into a natural environment. We're fundamentally changing the composition of the ocean."

California can’t fix this problem alone, but as the country’s most populous state, with one of the longest coastlines, it’s critically important that we do our part. California has long been a leader on smart policies that protect our valuable environment, and we commend the legislature, Governor Brown, and the environmental organizations that all worked so hard to pass a reasonable bill that creates a model for the country and communities around the world for preventing pollution at its source. We’re also grateful to the grocers and farmworkers whose organizations supported this bill. And kudos to the California Latino-led grassroots organizations that organized and advocated for this bill in non-coastal districts where plastic debris also causes harm. Thanks to this strong and broad coalition, California has become the first state in the nation to ban flyaway bags, while also promoting use of less impactful reusable bags. As we celebrate this victory, we can also inspire others by showing that reducing plastic production can be an economic win.

California’s single-use plastic bag ban sets a good template for other states to follow. Beginning July 1, 2015, grocery stores and pharmacies can no longer make single-use plastic bags available to customers. The same will apply to convenience and liquor stores starting July 1, 2016. Instead, the establishments can charge 10 cents for high recycle content paper bags, compostable plastic bags, and reusable bags (the statewide ban will grandfather in existing local ordinances). Shoppers can avoid this fee by bringing their own reusable bags. Reusable and paper bags will be made available free to low-income shoppers participating in California’s Supplemental Food Programs. Furthermore, this legislation 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. The largest single-use bag manufacturers in California make other products as well, and this legislation will help them adjust to the single-use ban in SB 270.

Beyond enacting bag bans in other states, there’s much more we can do to protect marine life –and people—from the plastic glut. As individuals, we can recycle and avoid littering, and eliminate single-use plastic items from our routines by bringing our own bags and avoiding throwaway cutlery, for instance. We can use fully recyclable or reusable replacements for plastic packaging and other single-use items, to cut demand for them. But voluntary action alone won’t curb pollution at its source; among other things, we need producers of plastics to take responsibility for dealing with the waste, and incentives for businesses to find substitutes. With each of these changes, we take another step toward healthier oceans.

This article was originally published at Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council.