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BYOB: Bring Your Own Bags

news_foodbag1Proposed ban may take plastic bags out of Santa Cruz stores

Getting in the car to buy dinner at the supermarket has taken us a long way from tracking a herd of animals to survive the winter. Conveniences have become an important part of our day-to-day lives, but while making life easier, these conveniences have also separated us from the environment in which we live. Not to mention they can take a drastic toll on the environment.

The most recent issue on the minds of environmentalists and local politicians in Santa Cruz County is the convenience of getting plastic and paper bags at the grocery store. On Oct. 30, County Supervisor Mark Stone announced his intention of instating a countywide ordinance that bans single-use plastic bags and drastically reduces the number of paper bags that are used. Stone plans to instate the ban, if approved, on April 22, 2010, also known as Earth Day. The proposed ban will not only ban plastic bags from all supermarkets and pharmacies, but incentives will be provided to customers if they forgo store provided paper bags altogether and bring their own reusable bags.

This proposal is the latest in a long line of environmentally conscious acts that Santa Cruz has passed. In January 2008, an ordinance was approved that prohibits any food provider from using Styrofoam. This ban is especially important in a beach community where much of the trash can, and will, float out to sea. Dustin MacDonald, chair of the Santa Cruz chapter of Surfrider Foundation, backs the ban. “Polystyrene foam [Styrofoam] is the worst trash for near-shore environments because it breaks into hundreds of little pieces and is extremely hard to pick up,” he says. A proposed single-use plastic bag ban might be another way for Santa Cruz to spread its environmental wings.

San Francisco was the first city to impose a single-use plastic bag ban in November 2007 with other California cities in close pursuit. Palo Alto’s plastic bag ban took effect in September of this year. Los Angeles will be banning plastic bags in July 2010 and San Jose’s ban will be effective in 2011. Oakland has been facing lawsuits for their attempt to ban single-use plastic bags and a similar measure in Hawaii was voted down.

Internationally, China, Australia, Italy, South Africa, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Ireland and Mexico City, among others, have imposed measures to reduce, if not entirely ban, single-use plastic bags.

Santa Cruz will take one step further than most of these places in its proposed ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags: paper bags will also be on the chopping block. According to Stone, the creator of the ordinance, “Paper bags are almost as bad as plastic.” Although paper is biodegradable, it still causes a strain on the environment. Paper bags use fresh lumber (unless they are 100 percent recycled), and are more costly, heavy and bulky than plastic, which results in more energy used in transport. In addition, approximately 91 percent more energy is required to recycle paper than to recycle plastic.

Plastic bags may require substantially less energy to recycle and transport, but they, too, are not free of fault. Petroleum is used to manufacture plastic bags, putting increased strain on oil reserves and, although they use relatively little energy to recycle, very few bags make it to the recycling center.

Ecology Action Spokesperson Anna Hirst says that the Santa Cruz-based organization has consistently worked for a zero waste society and supports a ban on single-use plastic bags. “Plastic shopping bags are a pervasive problem,” Hirst says. “Even with firm plastic recycling programs, bags blow away easily, are hard to contain, fall apart and inevitably end up in the Monterey Bay or local watersheds.”

California took initial steps to reduce plastic bag waste with Assembly Bill (AB) 2449, also known as the Plastic Bag Recycling Act of 2006. This bill mandates that every major supermarket and pharmacy have in-store recycling bins for plastic bags. But it seems that real change is unlikely as a result of efforts like AB 2449: According to the Worldwatch Institute, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags every year and only about 1 percent of those land in recycling centers. Plastic bags have the potential to be reused and recycled, but it seems to be difficult for consumers to see this potential, regardless of intention, and deter single-use plastic bags from clogging our landfills and oceans.

Save Our Shores, an advocate for environmental activism on the Central Coast, has announced its support for the proposed ban of single-use plastic bags in Santa Cruz County. “Plastic bags plague Santa Cruz County’s waterways and beaches,” says Program Coordinator Emily Glanville. “Since April 2007, Save Our Shores’ cleanup volunteers have removed over 17,000 plastic bags from our local rivers and beaches.”

Local supermarkets have already been voluntarily axing the use of plastic bags. Customers cannot take their groceries home in plastic bags at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Staff of Life or New Leaf, among others.

New Leaf Community Markets have been offering a bagging incentive in the form of EnviroTokens since May 1992. If shoppers need a bag from New Leaf, 100 percent recycled paper bags are available, but for each reusable bag that a customer brings in, they receive an EnviroToken, which donates $.10 towards local non-profit organizations such as the Homeless Garden Project, Native Animal Rescue and Save Our Shores. Eric Conly, store manager of the Westside New Leaf, believes it is important that people be environmentally conscious without being governed to do so. “People that are making the effort to reuse bags are making great choices,” he says. “If it becomes mandated by law, even for the best reasons, it becomes a loss of empowerment for individual efforts.”

According to Brian Early, a policy associate with Californians Against Waste, littering is often not a conscious act. “Plastic bags travel hundreds of miles in their journey from the plastic bag factory, to the store, to your home, to your trashcan, to a waste transfer station, and then to a landfill,” he says. “There are myriads of opportunities in this long journey for plastic bags to be exposed to wind and become littered.” This in mind, some wonder if legislature (beyond littering fines) is the necessary direction environmental causes need to take. Can people be taught to take the right steps to preserve the environment? If they cannot, is it the government’s role to force them? “It’s liberal fascism,” says one concerned Safeway customer, who wishes to remain anonymous. “You’re not going to stop it [with legislature]. It all stems from consumerism.”

Denny Jordan, another local shopper, is less worried about fascism but believes people are capable of making environmental choices for themselves. “You don’t make a difference by making people do something,” Jordan says. “You have to teach them. It’s an exercise in futility.”

If approved, Santa Cruz County will become one of many other cities taking steps to improve our environment through legislature.

Comments (1)Add Comment
Santa Cruz Leads the Way
written by Tim Goncharoff, November 10, 2009
This is great news. Santa Cruz should be leading the way on these issues, and this is a simple easy step everyone can take. Congrats to Mark Stone and the Board of Supervisors. Keep up the good work!

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