By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Voice
On August 1, Long Beach became the thirteenth jurisdiction within California to ban single-use plastic carryout bags at supermarkets and large retailers. Huntington Beach (HB) could soon join that list if City Council members Connie Boardman, Devin Dwyer and Joe Shaw can convince other council members.
A proposal to develop an ordinance to ban flimsy, disposable plastic carryout bags is on the Monday, August 15 HB City Council meeting agenda. The meeting starts at 7 pm at City Hall.
If a HB ordinance were to be modeled after the Long Beach one, it would also include a 10 cent customer fee for each paper bag dispensed, as the goal is not to convert to disposable paper bags but rather to encourage use of bags which can be used over 100 times.
The Long Beach ban took effect after a pivotal and unanimous California Supreme Court decision on July 14 which eases the way for local plastic bag bans by ruling that the city of Manhattan Beach did not have to complete a lengthy study of the environmental impact of disposable paper bags before baring retailers from dispensing plastic ones.
Such environmental impact reports are costly, and the plastic bag industry has successfully used them to block a municipality from enacting a local plastic bag ban by suing the city when an environmental impact report has not been performed.
Californians consume more than 12 billion single-use plastic bags per year, according to Environment California, a state-wide environmental advocacy organization. Very few get recycled, in part because plastic bags are rarely included in curbside recycling programs.
Plastic bag litter is not only an eyesore on land but also fouls waterways and kills marine animals who mistake the bags for food. A floating plastic bag resembles a jellyfish, which probably explains why plastic bags are found clogging the digestive tracts of dead sea turtles and marine mammals like whales and dolphins.
Plastic bags are a significant source of ocean pollution because, like all plastics derived from petroleum, they are non-biodegradable and are thought to persist in the ocean for up to hundreds of years as they just fragment over time into smaller bits of plastic.
The Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation has been measuring the buildup up of plastic debris in an area of the Pacific twice the size of Texas and dubbed the “Pacific Garbage Patch” which, in 1999, already contained six times more plastic than zooplankton. Preliminary analysis of ocean samples collected less than a decade later indicate that the ratio of plastic to plankton has risen six-fold.
Even here right off the coast of southern California, Algalita has previously found plastic debris at all ocean depths and in amounts sometimes exceeding twice that of zooplankton.
Local attempts in California to ban the dispensing of throw-away plastic bags began to multiply after the plastic industry successfully lobbied the state legislature in 2006 to pass a law that specifically prohibited cities or counties from imposing fees on plastic bags while supposedly encouraging plastic bag recycling by mandating that stores install plastic bag recycling bins for customers to bring back their used bags (AB2447).
Environmental groups, like the Surfrider Foundation and Costa Mesa-based Earth Resource Foundation, had generally favored the bag fee approach as a way to motivate shoppers to get in the habit of bringing their own reusable bags. The prohibition against fees on plastic bags remains in effect until 2013.
An attempt to enact instead a state-wide ban on plastic carryout bags failed just last September when the California Senate voted down a bill already passed by the Assembly (AB 1998). The bill also included a requirement that shoppers be charged for paper carryout bags. Then Governor Schwarzenegger had signaled he would have signed it.
Had California passed the bill, it would have been the first state-wide ban of plastic bags in the nation.
San Francisco became the first California city, in 2007, to enact a plastic bag ban, followed soon after by Palo Alto and Oakland. Besides Long Beach and Manhattan Beach, the other southern California jurisdictions which have adopted bans are Calabasas, Malibu, Santa Monica and the County of Los Angeles.
These bans generally zero in on just plastic carryouts with handles, not the plastic bags implemented in-store for containing produce or meats.
Opponents of local bag bans point out that they create a confusing patchwork of conflicting regulations that can catch shoppers off-guard if they venture outside their city limits.
Concern is also voiced that people of limited income would have difficulty affording either the purchase of reusable bags or paying a per bag fee for paper ones. The proposal being introduced in HB addresses this concern head-on by commitments already obtained from the Surfrider Foundation and Rainbow Disposal to donate reusable bags.
Reusable bags are being sold at supermarkets and large retailers almost everywhere for as little as 99 cents.
Environmental groups that had their hopes recently dashed for a state-wide plastic-bag ban are experiencing renewed optimism that many cities will be emboldened to pursue local bans now that the onus of providing a costly environmental impact study has been lifted.
If HB does establish its own ban, it would be the first in both Orange and San Diego Counties.