The Cost of Managing Plastic Pollution


April 15, 2010

A Special Report from a League of Women Voters of Santa Monica Educational Forum held April 3, 2010 on the Costs of Managing Plastic Pollution in the Environment, and Solutions

Just blocks from the Santa Monica shore on a beautiful beach day, sat a very serious panel of experts in suits.  The panelists were California, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica government officials tasked with managing the plastic pollution that flows daily in every waterway to the sea along California’s great coast.   Each had their own photographs, facts and statistics to prove the same point:  plastic pollution is extremely difficult to control, terribly costly, and there is a desperate need for legislation to stop the overwhelming flow of plastic pollution.

Several panelists were veterans of previous legislative battles to control plastic pollution, a few of these successful like AB 258, California’s Nurdle Control Law that establishes best management practices for manufacturers and transporters of preproduction plastic pellets .  Nurdles are a plague to sea creatures who mistake the fish egg sized spheres as food.

But all of the panelists were in active service in an ongoing battle against American Chemistry Council (ACC) lobbyists who have formed groups such as “Save the Plastic Bag,”  successfully lobbied for California state legislation banning a fee on plastic bags, and repeatedly sued municipalities that have tried to ban plastic bags, with very creative use of The California Environmental Quality Act.  These government officials and a legislative analyst from the Santa Monica based nonprofit Heal the Bay were unified in their belief that legislative solutions are required for the worst offending single use plastics that plague our coast, chief amongst these, the plastic bag.  Agreeing that there is no way to recycle our way out of the plastic pollution problem in general, the panelists specifically rejected recycling as a reasonable solution for plastic bags.  Plastic bags are light- weight and often take flight making them hard to control. Plastic bags are often contaminated with food and other substances making them poor candidates for recycling.  In addition, they jam the recycling equipment, and do not produce valuable recycled content.  In fact, plastic bags cost more to recycle than they are worth.  These reasons may account for the fact that less than 5 % of plastic bags are recycled.

Backed into a corner by the ACC lobbyists who have spent great amounts of money to protect the plastic bag, the panelists spoke of a new strategy to protect our coast and sea life from the billowing, blowing plastic bags that jam the storm water catch basins and mimic sea jellies to unsuspecting ocean feeders.  Because the ACC was successful in banning fees on bags, new legislation is proposed that will simply ban plastic bags.  Because the ACC has successfully challenged bans on plastic bags with demands under The California Environmental Quality Act for environmental impact reports to show the environmental costs of relying on paper bags, the newly proposed legislation bans BOTH plastic and paper bags.  What are the chances for such a law to survive the political process that has doomed other attempts to control plastic bags?

Julia Brownlee, Democratic State Assembly Member representing coastal Santa Monica and author of Assembly Bill 1998 to impose a ban on single-use bags, believes her bill has a better shot than previous attempts.  For the first time, the California Grocers Association is on board to cooperate on the bill.  Single-use bags cost money that they have to pass on in the costs of food, and in tough economic times cutting costs is good for business. Also, with prominent publications like Time Magazine reporting on “The Perils of Plastic,” scientific information and reporting about the harms of plastic pollution is hard to ignore.

“Plastic Pollution is injuring and killing marine life, spoiling our beaches and costing Californians tens of millions of dollars to clean up every year. Now is the time to drastically reduce this pollution by switching to reusable bags. “

“Paper bags are not a good alternative to plastic. Paper bags contribute to deforestation, air pollution and warehouse wastes from the manufacturing process.  With just a little foresight, we can change our nasty bag habit by making a small investment in reusable bags and by bringing them with us when we enter a store. That is why I’m carrying Assembly Bill 1998, which will impose a ban on single-use bags…”

The panelists:

  • Jonathan Bishop: Chief Deputy Director State Water Resources Control Board
  • Richard Bloom: Santa Monica City Council Member, California Coastal Commissioner, and Chair Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission
  • Sonia Diaz: Legislative Analyst for Heal the Bay
  • James Bassett:  UCLA Professor of Business Sustainability
  • Dean Kubani: Senior Environmental Analyst, City of Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment
  • Coby Skye:  Civil Engineer, Los Angles County Department of Public Works