California to Become First State to Ban the Bag

By Tracy Russo

After an insistent year-long campaign by environmental and citizen activists, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law yesterday SB 270, legislation introduced by State Senator Alex Padilla (D) from Los Angeles. The legislation prohibits the use of single-use plastic bags in grocery and retail stores throughout the state of California, the first state in the nation to do so. The bill actually goes beyond a simple “bag ban.” Recognizing that removing plastic bags is only one strategy in the battle against wasteful consumption of both renewable and nonrenewable resources, the bill also requires that a surcharge of at least 10 cents be levied on paper bags, compostable bags, and even reusable plastic bags.

Response from environmental organizations is celebratory—but not jubilant. “It’s clear that there is a growing grassroots movement not just in California but across the country to stop plastic pollution,” said Dianna Cohen, CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. “Our coalition consists of over 380 NGOs, businesses, and prominent individuals from around the world, all dedicated in their own ways to bringing about a measurable reduction of single-use and disposable plastics—plastic shopping bags, plastic bottles, and straws being the most pervasive.”

Cohen is one of many environmental leaders quick to add, however, that the passing of this legislation is “just the tip of plastic pollution iceberg. This is a global environmental crisis—there is no place on earth remote enough not be touched by plastic pollution. Which is why the movement is global—it has to be! This global network is growing, thanks to dozens of organizations, locally, nationally and world-wide.”

Leslie Tamminen, director of the Clean Seas Coalition and part of Seventh Generation Advisors, agrees that stopping the epidemic of plastic waste takes more than bans and laws. It takes “wide and sustainable changes in consumer behavior. Data from the over 121 local plastic bag bans has proven that bans are effective at reducing litter and changing consumer attitudes, and have refuted industry’s claims of apocalyptic impacts on jobs and poor communities.

A state plastic bag ban saves taxpayers the huge amount of money spent on litter cleanup, and protects the environment.” But the key, she goes on to say, is education—and organizations like hers and like PPC are focusing on exactly that. There is one more side of the issue that is just as important to Cohen as clean oceans and fiscal responsibility: the risks of plastic toxicity to human health and wellbeing, not to mention that of other living creatures. “Plastic pollution doesn’t just foul landfills, water ways, and ocean currents, the ‘bloodstream’ of our earth. It also contributes to the fouling of our blood streams, and those of animals who ingest it or become entangled in it.”

Scientific reports confirm that toxins from plastic bottles and packaging leach into our bodies, even in utero. “We all carry a toxic body burden. The Environmental Working Group carried out a study in 2004 measuring the levels and types of toxins in the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies born at U. S. hospitals. They found an average of 200 chemicals per child tested. In other words, our babies are being born pre-polluted” (see “Toxic Babies”) . We now know these chemicals can affect neurological, endocrinal, and even the physiological development of fetuses.”

The link to various kinds of cancers is also being investigated. So the California bag ban is more than just a way to clean the place up. The legislation responds to growing concern over a complex set of ecological hazards. Concludes Cohen, “the fight against plastic pollution is not just an environmental issue. It’s a public health and social justice issue. Every one of us needs to understand these environmental and health risks.

And that takes us back to education, as Leslie (Tamminen) said — and on as large scale as possible.” The signing of the state-wide ban today is a huge step in the right direction. “But,” concludes Cohen, “we have to go beyond local efforts. This is just the tip of the iceberg, especially as we move away from fossils fuels—since plastic is a petroleum product! That’s why all of us who had a hand in the success of this legislation remain even more committed. We need to keep working at the national and international levels. Given the level of collaboration needed to get this bill signed, we know that we have our work cut out for us. Together we are turning the dial.”

PHOTO: Mouth of the Los Angeles River, Long Beach, California. © Bill McDonald, Algalita Foundation / Heal The Bay

This post appears courtesy of Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, PPC Ambassador