Convenience vs. Environment

The letter “What’s the Harm?” missed the mark about Santa Barbara’s proposed plastic bag ordinance and perpetuates misinformation being put out by plastic bag industry lobby groups like “Save the Plastic Bag Coalition,” so I’d like to set the record straight.

The ordinance being carefully considered by the City of Santa Barbara would prohibit grocery stores, pharmacies, and food and liquor marts from distributing single-use plastic carryout bags and require them to impose a small fee on paper bags. This fee is not a tax because it will not go to City coffers but be retained by the stores to support their efforts to encourage reusable bag use. Trash bags sold at stores would not be affected, nor would plastic bags used for newspapers or for produce, fish and meat at grocery stores, so no one will have to toss raw meat and fish directly into their reusable bags. Regardless, reusable bags are of course washable, and people should wash them regularly.

The City indeed has the power to enact such an ordinance, and will be following the lead of 74 other California municipalities (and counting) in doing so. It would indeed be great if the State took action to address the problem, and there is a bill (SB 405) currently under consideration to do so. However, similar state bag bills have been defeated over and over thanks to intense and well-funded lobbying by the plastic bag industry, so it’s up to local municipalities to act if we are going to stop the pollution of our beaches, creeks, roadsides and oceans by plastic bags.

The City of Santa Barbara and other South Coast municipalities have been very careful to protect themselves against the type of lawsuits that the plastic bag industry has filed against other cities, by charging the Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Oceans and Nourishment (BEACON) to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) assessing the environmental impacts of plastic bag bans on the South Coast. The EIR – which finds the impacts to be either insignificant or largely beneficial – will be adopted by BEACON on May 17th and then available for any South Coast municipality to use in enacting their own bag ordinances.

Channelkeeper leads frequent beach and creek clean-ups throughout the South Coast, and plastic bags are always one of the top three types of trash we pick up.  The City’s proposed bag ordinance will result in a 95% reduction in plastic carryout bag use in our area, according to BEACON’s EIR. Experience has shown that efforts to recycle plastics bags aren’t working. Despite mandatory supermarket recycling bins required since 2006, less than 5% of plastic bags in California are recycled. In LA County, over 90% of bags collected for recycling ended up being shipped to a landfill rather than recycled due to contamination from food or pet waste and the tendency for bags to jam recycling machinery.

Although single-use plastic bags are designed to be used for only moments, they last hundreds of years in the environment. Once discarded, the vast majority end up in landfills, rivers, storm drains and eventually, the beach and ocean, where they threaten wildlife and our tourism-based economy. The momentary and incidental convenience of plastic bags is simply not worth the environmental price, and Channelkeeper encourages all South Coast municipalities to ban them as soon as possible.

Kira Redmond is the executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper

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