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03.17.10

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Time for a Ban on Plastic Bags

By Emily Glanville


SAVE OUR SHORES, the leader in ocean awareness, advocacy and action on the Central Coast, supports the adoption of a countywide effort to ban single-use plastic bags.

Many other cities have taken similar action recently, including Palo Alto, San Francisco and Oakland. Save Our Shores believes that a full ban on single use plastic bags is an effective way to reduce the threat that plastic bags pose to our local ecosystems, reduce our burden on landfills and reduce unsightly litter in our community. Plastic bags plague Santa Cruz County waterways and beaches. Since April 2007, our cleanup volunteers have removed over 18,000 plastic bags from our local rivers and beaches. Plastic litter costs communities, both from an ecological and economic standpoint. In San Francisco alone, where the city recently adopted a plastic bag ban ordinance, city officials estimated that they previously spent $8.5 million annually to deal with plastic bag litter.

Recycling is not a sustainable solution. Most of our plastic waste is landfilled, downcycled or exported to other countries. Plastic bags have a tendency to get caught up in recycling machinery, which ultimately jeopardizes the efficiency of the machinery. Businesses and governments must take responsibility for new ways to design, recover and dispose of plastics. Consumption of throwaway plastics, such as bottles, containers, bags and packaging, has spiraled out of control. It doesn't make sense to use a material that for all intents and purposes lasts forever for items that we need for less than five minutes.

The environmental impacts of plastic bags are numerous, but SOS is primarily concerned with the impact these bags have on the marine environment. Often marine animals can mistake plastic bags for their real food source. Once an animal ingests a plastic trash item like a plastic bag, its body cannot digest it. The plastic item will remain in the animal's stomach, causing it to feel full and eventually stop eating its real food source. Save Our Shores has been working hard to bring a countywide ban for single-use carryout plastic bags coupled with a fee on all other single use bags to our community. SOS staff have been active at city council meetings in Santa Cruz and Watsonville and have been working on several committees, including the Commission on the Environment as well as the county-appointed single use plastic bag taskforce.

SOS identifies single use plastic bags as posing a significant threat to the health of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. SOS has therefore been instrumental in pushing for one of the strongest bans in California.

We do not consider other single use bags such as paper bags to be a sound environmental alternative to plastic bags. Rather, there are many other reusable options that pose less threat to the environment including reusable cloth bags, bags made from recycled products, bags made from starches, biodegradable polymer and other renewable resources.

It's hard for many people to imagine a community without plastic bags. Bust just three generations ago our society was functioning without the use of any plastic items. It's only a matter of a little creativity and ingenuity—two things that are certainly not lacking in Santa Cruz—to develop cost effective, sustainable alternatives.

Emily Glanville is program coordinator at Save Our Shores, a nonprofit dedicated to marine health.


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