Time for California Lawmakers to Ban the Bag

Posted on 30 May 2013

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Jenesse MillerBy Jenesse Miller

"But they're so convenient." Really?

The main, lame argument I hear in favor of the ubiquitous single-use plastic bag is that it's convenient. And that it's difficult to remember to bring your own reusable bags when you're out shopping. Even the most responsible environmentalists among us have occasionally arrived at the grocery store and realized we've forgotten our trusty reusable bag (you know, the ones with the logo of our favorite public radio station proudly displayed) and had to juggle a few items on the way home on our bikes or in our electric or biodiesel cars.

Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean. Image credit: NOAABut compare that minor inconvenience to the mess caused by millions of plastic bags littered throughout our communities and scoring free attendance to a popular trash conference known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

I'm pretty sure if they could talk, the marine life choking on that toxic plastic would say it's a pretty big inconvenience to them ... or, you know, a threat to their very existence.

Here are the facts: Californians use 14 billion plastic bags every year. The bags are rarely recycled (estimates are approximately 3 percent) and are littered at a high rate, contributing to marine pollution as well as urban litter pollution. Plastic bags ultimately end up in the ocean, where 60-80 percent of all marine debris is plastic.

One of the most striking facts that underscores an inconvenient truth (thanks Al Gore!) about plastic bags comes from Californians Against Waste: "Consider that the amount of time a plastic bag is used by a consumer (roughly 12 minutes or less) is long outlasted by the amount of time it exists after being disposed of or littered in the environment (estimates of up to hundreds of years)."

Sounds pretty inconvenient to me.

It's time for the California legislature to follow the lead of 75 of our cities and counties - including Los Angeles and San Francisco - and ban single-use plastic bags.

A close vote on this proposal will take place in the State Senate this week. Senate Bill 405 by Senator Alex Padilla would phase out plastic bags in California grocery stores and large pharmacies.

The move away from plastic bags will not only protect our environment - it will also benefit California's economy. The state currently spends about $25 million annually to collect and dispose of billions of plastic bags used every year. Local agencies spend millions more to clean up and dispose of plastic bags. Consumers also pay for supposedly "free" disposable bags, which are currently hidden in food costs. And if single-use bags go away, the companies making reusable bags right here in California can expand this already thriving and sustainable local industry.

The California Legislature has had several opportunities in recent years to ban plastic bags. In the months leading up to crucial votes, the American Chemistry Council, an industry group representing such giants as ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, spent millions on an opposition campaign that included lobbying, media advertising and contributions to state legislators.

Meanwhile, dozens of local ordinances banning plastic bags have passed throughout California. Senator Padilla believes his bill's prospects are better than in past years because the business community now sees the wisdom in a statewide policy. According to the L.A. Times:

Ron Fong, president of the California Grocers Assn., said his 400 members back Padilla's bill because it provides "consistency and predictability for consumers." Complying with dozens of slightly different city and county laws is complicated and expensive, he said.

It's time for California lawmakers to stand up to industry pressure and do the right thing for our environment and our communities.

Getting rid of single-use plastic bags is a triple win for our ocean ecology, our urban communities and California consumers. Please contact your state senator today and tell them it's time for California to demonstrate national leadership by banning the bag.

Jenesse Miller is the Communications Director for the California League of Conservation Voters, where this article originally appeared.