Next evening I’m down on Coronado’s Center Beach, walking the mile to Naval Air Station North Island, where the fence struts out into the water. I’m looking for plastic bags in the sand, among the seaweed, in the water, aloft on the breeze. Not a thing. In the whole two-mile walk, I find one plastic cup and an orange and yellow Sour Patch candy wrapper.
“What’s the story?” I ask Messinger when I call him back that night.
“Ah,” he says. “Center Beach. That’s a special case. Have you ever heard of FODs? That means foreign object debris or foreign object damage. Or foreign object disposal. It’s a continual worry for fliers. Things getting sucked into their jet intakes or props. Anything from seagulls to plastic bags. At North Island they take a lot of trouble to track them down and keep the base clear of them. Why don’t you go down to the slough at IB or across the border? Trust me. You’ll see plenty of bagfish there.”
I do. There are. Hiding in pockets in the slough, wrapped around Otay River bridge legs, caught on seagull claws as the birds fly high to free themselves, swirling in dust devils under I-5 off-ramps, pinioned to cactus prickles down at Popotla in Baja. Once you start looking, you see them everywhere.
Harbor Garbage Patrol
One morning I wander out to the G Street Mole, just past the American Tunaboat Association building, where a few old guys mend nets stretched from jetty railings. Three men in jeans and caps hover around a workaday catamaran you wouldn’t normally notice among the hotshot blue-water fishing vessels with names like Charlotte V., Nancy, and Victoria City. The craft has a black outboard attached and two massive logs slung alongside, floating in the water. A big box with built-up sides is sunk into the deck area, just ahead of the steering console.
The box is packed with flotsam, jetsam, driftwood, picture frames, plastic buckets, water cooler bottles, shoes, Clorox bottles, and plastic bags, lots of bags, like interstitial tissue among the other debris. The two logs alongside are collapsed pier legs they’re disposing of. The crew, Julio Bello, Jose Robles, and Antonio Sandoval, spend their days putt-putting from one end of the bay to the other (it takes a couple of hours to get down to Chula Vista). They do nothing but pick up debris. They call the boat Alligator because it’s supposed to snap up floating garbage. “Plastic bags? A lot,” says Robles. “Drifting across the water or alongside the riprap off Seaport Village. By the outfalls especially.”
“We get to pick up dead animals, syringes, plastic bags,” says Bello. “You name it, it’s coming down the storm drains.”
It’s a countywide problem, they say. Outfalls can debouch plastic bags that have traveled from as far inland as the Cuyamacas.
“If only they’d come up with heavy-duty biodegradable plastic,” says Bello, “it’d make our job easier. Especially at places like Seaport Village, where tourists let bags fly, and National City. I’d say we pick up 30 to 50 a day.”
What’s Being Done About the Plastic Plague?
So what are we, San Diegans, doing about this? In the City of San Diego, it’s hard to know. If you can believe this, Mayor Jerry Sanders has decreed that none of his employees shall speak to or cooperate with, and definitely not have lunch with, the Reader. I was not even allowed to go to the City’s landfill at Miramar to inspect the situation with the City’s landfill king, Stephen Grealy, who sounded slightly embarrassed in relaying the bad news. So let me get this right: the mayor, a paid servant of the People, tells the People of San Diego whom it should get its news through? Echoes of Putin-style “managing the news”?
Donna Frye, chair of the city council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee, is the other most likely elected city official to take an interest in the issue. In July, members of San Diego Coastkeeper presented arguments for banning the bag to the committee. Frye said she needed to hear from the other side, in a meeting scheduled for today, September 10. But it doesn’t look as if the City is giving the bag ban the fast-track treatment.
The County hasn’t moved any faster. “I like the idea of ‘pay as you throw,’ ” says Wayne Williams, program coordinator for recycling with the County’s Department of Public Works. “Charge a dollar a bag. Why not? That would control the use. But a ban? You need a plan for a ban.”
The County has supported only the voluntary approach to recycling plastic bags. “We were very happy when the State passed AB-2449, the legislation requiring retail stores of a certain square footage to set up recycling facilities in each store,” he says, “because we thought that that was a very good way to control this problem we have with plastic bags. At this time, neither the County nor the City has ordinances aimed specifically at recycling plastic bags. However, we do have anti-litter ordinances, which are enforced.”
Personally, Williams doesn’t think the plastic-bag problem is that bad. “I’ve worked in 23 different countries, most of them in the third world. And comparatively speaking, the litter problem [here] isn’t anywhere near what it is in many of them,” he says. The County, he says, is concerned, but bags are a lower priority than, say, recycling food waste and construction and demolition materials. “Our way is through educational programs,” he says. “We’re spending $175,000 — 12 percent of the recycling budget — in education programs, including 60 presentations to schools, and billboards.”
And yet, Williams says, he recognizes that “100 percent” of plastic bags eventually make it to the ocean and that that can be a dangerous thing. “If a plastic bag takes 500 years to go from the Sycamore Landfill to the ocean, molecules intact, in many cases, the plasticizers are still residual in the final product. And when those plasticizers are released, if they’re taken into cells, then it could create problems, because we know that those are problematic.”