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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.”

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Comments

ScottH Sept. 11, 2008 @ 2:26 p.m.

Great article - tho a tad outta date on the state legislature: 2058 is now dead. Sadly, legislative measures at the state level pertaining to this issue often get bogged down in the prevailing political morass (The Great Sacramento Gyre).

Get involved here:

http://riseaboveplastics.blogspot.com/

www.surfrider.org/rap www.surfridersd.org>

a2zresource Sept. 11, 2008 @ 2:47 p.m.

I got about 204,000 results on a google of "hemp shopping bag"...

http://www.google.com/search?q=hemp+shopping+bag

Good political leadership is where you find it. If not found, it doesn't hurt to make some changes ourselves.

If the idea of hemp turns you off, then try this for over 5 million results:

http://www.google.com/search?q=cloth+shopping+bag

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JoeSpazz Sept. 12, 2008 @ 3:08 p.m.

I found this great website that offers some solutions to San Diego's plastic bag dilemma. they are local, easy to get a hold of and have many options. We need more of this in San Diego and all cities..

http://www.environmentbags.com

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jelula Sept. 12, 2008 @ 3:17 p.m.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story about the Urban Tumbleweed - the writer has an excellent turn of phrase that brought a grin several times. The timeline for plastic bags was fascinating but I was distressed to learn of the ecological impacts of these bags, especially in the ocean. Considering current concerns about oil prices & availability, I would like to have seen a bit more emphasis on the front-end costs of these bags and other disposable items which are, basically, petroleum products.

As a student abroad many years ago, I discovered the String Bag and still use them for much of my shopping - they are almost weightless, stretch like you wouldn't believe, and I can hang a full bag from my shoulder, reducing the strain of hand-carrying it when loaded. As for hemp, people need to get over their prejudice - hemp is not marijuana and does not contain THC levels of marijuana! It has been used for millennia for many purposes, particularly for the fiber, and not for recreational or medicinal drug purposes. Check out the article in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemp

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jileen Sept. 12, 2008 @ 3:54 p.m.

Hooray for Encinitas, surfriders, Charles Moore, Elizabeth Willes, other pro plastic ban activists (mentioned or not), & especially to Bill Manson/ The Reader for bringing all this together so succinctly/ its timely publishing.

I enjoyed the sobriquets like "urban tumbleweeds." I recalled another while reading Curtis Ebbesmeyer's words about digging up a thin layer of plastic in 10,000 years - if there are humans left to do so, that is.

A brilliant & personable prof not only taught Southern California natural history at Mesa Community College in 1976, but was co-writing & illustrating a course textbook with a colleague at that time (he provided that collated material to students free of charge).

Whenever the class came across plastic debris (too often) on our numerous geological field trips, our prof would comment, "early plasticene age," or in the case of glass debris, "glassticene era."

[If anyone reading this comment recalls that professor's name & the title of that text when it was published, I would very much appreciate an answering comment here. thanks] ~jileen

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jileen Sept. 12, 2008 @ 4:09 p.m.

hey jelula - you bring up a pertinent point. I lived in West Germany 1970-72, and saw only one experimental "supermarket" (Frankfurt) in the 8 European countries I visited then. Instead, the Germans would pick up dinner supplies on the way home from work each day, getting bread at the die Bäckerei, meat at die Metzgerei, etc. & place those items either in a woven straw handbag or under the multi-purpose arm. Paper wrapping was provided sometimes, but no bags of any sort were provided to the shopper.

That was so very refreshing. Americans could take a page from the Euro book, huh?

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SpitfireRoad Sept. 15, 2008 @ 12:46 a.m.

This story was a nice break on a reality.

Truth: There's a community "kickin' bagfish ass" in Baja California.

Search for a ning site: "plastico fantastico".

These guys south of the border already took it to another level.

Spitfire Road

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richardabaker Sept. 15, 2008 @ 3:36 p.m.

The rocks under the sea in La Jolla, or any of the San Diego County beaches are not covered with plastic shopping bags. Let's keep science pure and not make stuff up to push an agenda. Stick to the facts and you will sell your ideas more easily. I have seen video of celluloid particles from bathroom tissue choking the coral in Hawaii but I have never seen a plastic bag on or under the oceans. I spend a lot of time in the ocean and have friends that dive. I free dive with goggles when the surf shuts down....show us the proof.

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jcsuperstar Sept. 17, 2008 @ 5:27 p.m.

When I read the bit at the head of the "What’s Being Done About the Plastic Plague?" section of this article I was incensed. This is buried in an article that will be lost and should itself be a cover story. Get the most unflattering photo of Sanders and throw it on a future cover and dig into it as tenaciously as possible.

It has always gotten under my skin when public servents and government-paid workers decline comment on their job performance perpetually. Public officials need to be required to answer to ALL of its citizenry on ALL issues related to their jobs to ANY news media that asks for it and in a timely and unrehearsed manner. Imagine being called into your boss' office and telling him you decline to answer his questions ABOUT YOUR JOB! What unmitigated gall and chutzpah we allow from these guys. They work for us and are not our Lords. It about damned time they get to knowing it.

I am sure Sanders and his attorneys canvas everything here. That is why they disallow any contact with the Reader for their staff and employees....ultimately OUR EMPLOYEES. Declare war on them and their developer bedfellows. Everyone should expose them for what they are every time they slip up and show their dirty underwear. Hold them accountable. I applaud the Reader, Don Bauder specifically, for not backing off and maintaining the right focus on the marginal criminality of our local government. So go to war too as you can. Call your talk radio. Write letters to the editors. Protest when there is an organized protest. It's time to take back America's Finest City for its finest citizens not the developer scum.

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