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Nov 29th
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The Age of Plastics

reusablePart three in a four part series looking at the discourse surrounding plastic bag bans


Only humans make things Mother Nature can’t digest. The main argument found in environmental groups’ discourse surrounding the plastic bag debate is that plastic bags aren’t good for our Earth, and that reusable materials are simply the better choice. Despite the positive spin put on plastics by lobbying groups, activists say there is no debate. Save the Bay, one of the leading environmental organizations fighting to ban plastic bags says, “Plastic bags are toxic to marine animals, and the ecosystem at large. Plastics leech toxic chemicals and take an estimated 1,000 years to decompose in landfills, which is where most end up.”

Save the Bay, founded in 1961, is the largest organization working to protect, restore and honor the San Francisco Bay. On their website, they have started a campaign attacking the multi-billion dollar plastic bag corporations by using facts, videos, and images of plastic bags and bottles found in the San Francisco Bay due to the neglect and pollution created by humans.

They key argument that fuels Save the Bay’s “Bay vs. Bay” campaign attacks plastic corporations by explaining that pollution is one of the biggest threats to the San Francisco Bay and trash “gravely imperils wildlife, water quality, and public health.” Unlike the ACC and SPI, Save the Bay’s campaign directly attacks plastic corporations by framing their argument in a way that pins the problem on the industry and not the product. For example, Save the Bay says, “the plastics industry is infiltrating local communities, blocking proposals that limit the use of plastic bags and suing cities that attempt to ban or require a fee on single-use bags.”

Save the Bay goes a step further in their rhetorical argument than the plastic industry does through their use of haunting images of plastic bags washed up on shores, stuck in trees, floating in our oceans, and stuck in storm drains as a way to appeal to their audience and elicit an emotional response. By using the power of visuals mixed within their campaign, Save the Bay visually and verbally show that these lightweight plastic bags persist in the environment and clog waterways.

Save the Bay, like the ACC and SPI, has a discursive theme that appears in their campaign. This environmental group uses words on their website such as, “protect” and “advocate.” By using such language, Save the Bay’s persuasive tactics revolve around putting the issues of the debate in your hands. They highlight humans’ relationship with the natural world and focus on our need to take responsibility and “protect” our world, as well as be our own “advocate” for the cause. Ultimately, Save the Bay promotes the notion that it is up to individuals to save our world, as well as be apart of the plastic bag debate and solution.

The ACC and SPI attack paper bags, which could replace plastic bags in many incidents if they are banned, in most of their argument as being worse for the environment. Interestingly enough, Save the Bay never once says that paper bags are a good thing for the environment. In fact, they also recognize the harmful affects that paper bags can have on our natural world. Unlike the plastic corporations, Save the Bay believes that the problem does not end with banning plastic bags, and the the real solution is in utilizing more sustainable materials. The debate will ultimately end when reusable bags fill consumers’ cars, homes, and stores nationwide, replacing single-use paper and plastic bags altogether.

Environmental groups’ discourse continues to be concerned with moving away from the throwaway lifestyle America has embraced. They do so by not favoring paper over plastic, but instead advocating for reusable bags in order to improve our relationship with the natural world and end our destruction of the environment through over consumption and improper disposal of synthetic materials like plastic.

Jamie Foster is a second year graduate student in communication studies at San Francisco State University, where she is currently studying the discourse used within the plastic bag debate and how each side—plastic corporations and environmental groups—construct their arguments. Good Times will host four blogs by Jamie about this subject. If you would like to see a complete version of her paper or have any questions please email her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Comments (1)Add Comment
written by Ed Zachary, December 11, 2011
I see a lot of trash on the roadside, and some around the Santa Cruz wharf and harbor when i go there, but not many plastic bags. I just don't see the tons of plastic that people are so upset about. Look around many plastic bags do you see while driving around? I think this has become an emotional issue, one of those litmus test issues that cause people to take irrational polar stances.

I also have the first hand experience of having stored items in black plastic garbage bags and other items in paper shopping bags in my attic 24 years ago when I moved in. Today the plastic bags are crumbling and you cannot generally pick them up because they fall apart...the paper bags are still quite strong. So much for taking 1000 years to decay. In my attic it takes about 25 years for obvious decay. Of course, they haven't started decomposing into the ethylene gas from whence they came, but that will eventually happen I believe.

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