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Leading the Way Toward a Clean Ocean:Communities Around the World Take Action Against Plastic Bags
by Travis Madsen, Frontier Group and Julia Ritchie, Environment California Research & Policy Center
Our oceans are polluted with millions of tons of plastic trash. In the Pacific Ocean, plastic debris churns in a soup called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an area twice the size of Texas where plastic bits outweigh plankton. Plastic pollution persists for hundreds of years, and can kill turtles, seabirds and other marine animals.
Throw-away plastic bags are a significant part of the problem. To reduce ocean pollution and protect the environment, more than 80 national and local governments across the planet have taken official action to ban throw-away plastic bags or to establish fees or taxes on such bags.
State, county, and city governments in California should follow their lead and ban the use of plastic grocery bags.
Plastic bags contribute to the pollution of California’s ocean and beaches.
- Californians use approximately 16 billion plastic bags per year – more than 400 annually per person.
- Less than 5 percent of plastic bags are recycled. Instead, they end up sitting in landfills, littering streets, clogging streams, fouling beaches, or floating out to sea.
- Plastic trash threatens ocean ecosystems. Sea turtles and other marine animals often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them, causing injury or death. In parts of the Pacific Ocean, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic outweighs plankton by up to six times.
- The city of San Francisco estimated that the taxpayer cost to subsidize the recycling, collection, and disposal of plastic and paper bags amounts to as much as 17 cents per bag. Applied to California as a whole, that adds up to more than $1 billion per year.
More than 80 national and local governments around the world have taken action to protect the ocean by reducing the use of plastic bags.
- At least 20 nations and 47 local governments have passed bans on distributing specific kinds of throw-away plastic bags, including the nations of Italy, Kenya, Mongolia, Macedonia, and Bangladesh; the states of Maharashtra, India and Buenos Aires, Argentina; and the cities of Karachi, Pakistan and Telluride, Colorado.
- Approximately 26 nations and local communities have established fee programs to reduce plastic bag use and/or increase the use of reusable alternatives, including Botswana, China, Hong Kong, Wales, Ireland, Israel, Canada’s Northwest Territories, Toronto, Mexico City, and Washington, D.C.
Bans and meaningful fee programs effectively reduce plastic bag pollution.
- Bans and fee programs quickly reduce plastic bag distribution. Ireland, which in 2002 established a fee roughly equivalent to 28 U.S. cents per bag, saw plastic bag use drop by 90 percent within the first year. After Washington, D.C., implemented a much smaller 5 cent tax on plastic bags, the number of bags distributed by food retailers fell from 22.5 million per month to 3.3 million per month. And the year after banning plastic bags at pharmacies and supermarkets in 2007, San Francisco businesses distributed 127 million fewer plastic bags, and cut overall bag waste reaching the city landfill by up to 10 percent.
Eleven city and county governments in California have taken successful action to reduce plastic bag pollution.
- Eleven California cities and counties have bans on plastic bags in effect, including Long Beach, Santa Monica, San Jose, San Francisco, and unincorporated Marin and unincorporated Los Angeles counties. Five of these communities, including Marin County and San Jose, have also authorized mandatory charges on paper bags to encourage citizens to use reusable bags.
- Two additional communities, Oakland and Manhattan Beach, passed bans that were later struck down after legal challenges by plastic bag manufacturers.
Much more progress can be made to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean and transform our throw-away culture.
- Education and recycling cannot keep pace with the generation of plastic bag pollution. Despite a 2006 law requiring retailers to place bag recycling bins in front of their stores, less than 5 percent of bags are recycled.
- To make a real impact, all California cities and counties should restrict the use of plastic bags, and advocate for similar action at the state level.
Update, July 2011:
On July 14th 2011, the California Supreme Court ruled that the city of Manhattan Beach can enforce a local ordinance banning plastic bags. The policy had been held up by a lawsuit brought by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition. Manhattan Beach can now move forward on their bag ban, bringing the total number of California cities and counties that have successfully taken action against plastic bag pollution to 12.