• Captain Charles Moore, UCSD alum, steps overboard. He disappears into the inky Pacific. It’s 2007, nighttime, 500 miles west of San Diego. He swims, about three, four feet beneath the surface, through the spooky blue. A large jellyfish swipes him in the face.
Except it isn’t a jellyfish. It’s a plastic shopping bag.
“It could have come from San Diego, it could have come from Tokyo,” says Moore. “They’re both on the edge of the North Pacific Gyre.” The Gyre? A slow-swirling oceanic system that has amassed a huge floating plastic garbage patch, twice the size of North America.
• In the kelp beds off La Jolla, a spore drops away from its giant mother plant toward the bottom, destined to grow into a male kelp gametophyte whose sperm will wiggle-swim toward a female kelp egg. But the resulting baby plant needs a rock to anchor on and start growing. Problem? Plastic grocery bags cover the stones. It tries to grip. Slips. Tries again. Slips. Tries one last time before the currents carry it off.
• An outboard-powered fishing day boat heads homeward through big surf toward the calm waters of Mission Bay. It must make it through the narrow entrance of the Mission Bay Channel. Suddenly, a heat alarm sounds. Something is blocking the water intake. The engine cuts. The boat drifts helplessly onto the rocks.
Score another for the iniquitous, ubiquitous plastic bag.
Plastic bags. Why can’t we eliminate these polluting, addicting, consumer-age indulgences from our lives? Probably because they’re so damned practical, so accommodating. What better overnight-clothes stuffer? Beach towel carrier? Garbage pail liner? Pooper-scooper bag? Californians Against Waste estimate that we use 19 billion plastic grocery bags each year in the state. That’s about 500 each, almost 2 a day. But we recycle only 1 to 4 percent properly, which means 18-plus billion end up in landfills like Miramar — or blow out to sea.
Put it this way: the average plastic bag has an estimated life of from 20 to 1000 years, depending on the bag and whom you talk to. So if William the Conqueror had buried his dog’s doodoo in a plastic bag after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the bag’d be wasting away just about now. We don’t need to be creating history like that.
A plastic bag’s useful lifespan is, what, 20 or 30 minutes? However long it takes to get from the supermarket to home. Thereafter, it launches into a second career filling our landfills and clogging our streams, storm drains, oceans, fishes’ bellies. And from there, perhaps, to our bellies. How bad is the problem? Green think tanks have had a field day conjuring up original ways to express the horror.
By weight, Californians alone, you read, throw away 294,000,000 pounds of plastic bags every year, or 147,000 tons.
By volume? End to end, enough to circle the planet over 250 times.
By time? Six hundred plastic bags jettisoned every second. Worldwide, around 17,000 per second, a million a minute, more than half a trillion plastic bags per year.
You can take them back to the supermarket, but don’t try putting them out in your recycling bin. Edco or Allied will reject them or send them to the landfill because (a) they’re the lowest-grade plastic and hard to sell at a profit, (b) they gum up the sorting machinery at the recycle centers, and (c) they’re too much trouble. Just leaving a shopping receipt inside one can cause sorting problems, plus it takes huge numbers to make up a nice, heavy, sellable bundle.
“Plastic bags are not a waste issue,” says Yvette Snyder of Edco. “They’re a stormwater issue. Those bags are like little parachutes. They fly around, and being a coastal community, our biggest concern is that they can get into the ocean.”
The “Bagfish” Invasion
Rod Messinger, a 15-year veteran of the City’s Lifeguard Service, has learned to hate what he calls “bagfish.”
“They’re the curse of outboard engines,” he says, “because if you run over one, it’ll wrap itself around the cooling intake on the outboard engine and the engine will overheat. Most modern outboards have a little alarm that’ll go off, called the ‘hot horn.’ There are some times when you’ll be doing a rescue, and you hit a bagfish and you don’t know it because you can’t really tell. You have to stop what you’re doing and back down on the engine, so the pump reverses and blows the bag off. It’s a guaranteed stop for at least a couple of minutes while the engine gets squared away, which counts when you’re trying to reach someone in trouble. It can affect any precarious situation.”
Messinger says the bagfish invasion has gotten worse. “Way worse. The Port has a full-time trash boat on the bay, every day, does nothing but pick up trash from the water, and a helluva lot of it is plastic bags. It happens to me every time I paddle out. I end up taking around ten items out of the water, and three of them will always be bagfish.”
Even when people dispose of bags properly, they can end up in the ocean. “You should come down to Mission Beach after a holiday,” says Messinger. “It’s plastic-bag mayhem! It’s not careless people. Most of them have done the right thing. They’ve stuffed their leftovers into a plastic bag and tried to squeeze it into one of the trash bins. Of course, there are never enough. And no sooner have the folks taken off than the seagulls fly in. They haul those bags out and peck them to bits to get at the food. Then the bags get light and fly off in the evening breeze. You remember the plastic-bag scene in American Beauty? So beautiful. But that’s what happens above every downtown. Those high-rises create heat chimneys. Half the time you can’t tell if they’re bags or birds. I saw one today. Thought it was a bird. It was flying over the Coronado Bridge. Plastic bag. And you should see the Center Beach and Silver Strand. Bags galore.”