And the effect on us?
Moore tries to demonstrate the enormity of the problem and the health risks that plastics in the ocean pose for us humans. “The American people weigh approximately 50 billion pounds,” he writes on his website, “but 100 billion pounds of plastic resin pellets (the raw materials for consumer plastics) are produced in the U.S. annually.…
“Plastic materials accumulate and concentrate organic chemicals and environmental pollutants up to one million times their concentration in the surrounding sea water. Many of these chemicals are called ‘endocrine disruptors’ and can be released when the plastics are ingested. The endocrine system produces hormones in humans and animals. Hormones are amazingly potent.… Effects of hormone disruption on humans run the gamut from enlarged prostates and cancer to early puberty in young girls, even mental retardation and propensity to violence.”
Why, then, not just ban plastic bags? “If citizens want to ban them,” says Williams, “they should make their voices heard. Petition! Use democracy! I work for elected officials. Give them information. These actions need strong grass roots.”
Ban the Bag
Revolution wasn’t needed in San Francisco. San Francisco has simply banned plastic bags in its supermarkets and chain pharmacies. “Did San Francisco’s city government act as a result of popular pressure?” I ask Mark Westlund, spokesman for that city’s Department of the Environment.
“No, not at all,” Westlund says. “It was driven from the top, and that’s what you call political leadership.”
San Francisco’s elders, under Mayor Gavin Newsom, wanted to get rid of plastic-bag blight, perhaps inspired by Ireland’s decision to tax plastic grocery bags, which resulted in a stunning 94 percent reduction in the use of plastic bags at supermarkets. At first Newsom played nice. “We initially did a voluntary agreement with the grocery stores,” Westlund says. “We said, ‘Can we reduce your bags by ten million over the course of a year?’ And we signed agreements at a whole big press show with the mayor and the supervisors and the grocery store representatives. A year goes by, and we’d actually given the grocery stores the format that we needed to have the data in, so that we could verify that it was accurate. And the year comes by, and we get no data. And we give them two extensions and we get no data. And finally the third time we give them an extension, a couple of stores turn some [data] in. But only one used the proper forms, and we couldn’t verify any of the stuff that came in. So I can’t call that a success at all.”
The grocery chains could see the writing on the wall and started lobbying Sacramento through the California Grocers Association to amend a state bill-in-the-making (AB-2449) intended to curb plastic-bag use. The supermarkets and the plastic-bag makers “succeeded in amending that bill so no city could charge a fee on bags and no city could ask the stores how many plastic bags they use,” says Westlund. “That shot directly at the deal we’d made with them. So we couldn’t really extend our deal, and no other city could do anything like it. I think it was that fact alone that created the political will amongst our city fathers to push through this ban on plastic grocery bags. It was ‘We can’t do voluntary agreements, and we can’t charge a fee. I guess we’re going to have to ban them.’
“So we gave them six months before the ban took effect for the markets, and within that six months, the stores started finding alternative supplies, and most stores were compliant before the ban even took effect. They had paper and cornstarch plastic [compostable] bags and, of course, reusable bags for sale.”
Other cities tried to follow San Francisco’s lead. But they had not only the California Grocers Association but also the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, to contend with. Oakland’s attempt foundered on these groups’ insistence that the environmental impact of using paper bags be studied before a plastic-bag ban be allowed to proceed. Meanwhile, other West Coast cities, including Seattle, Malibu, and Manhattan Beach, have decided to ban or charge — in Seattle’s case — for plastic bags. L.A. plans to too. Chula Vista’s Steve Castañeda has been urging his four fellow councilmembers to take action.
It may seem like just another greens–versus–corporate America tussle, but many see this as a bellwether fight for a paradigm shift in America: whether America “gets it,” that a profligate energy-consuming lifestyle can’t continue. And it comes down to a simple but perhaps life-changing act: choosing between using plastic bags at the supermarket and taking your own cloth bags.
Dave Heylen, spokesperson for the California Grocers Association, says it should be voluntary. No government mandates. “Actually, the way the City of San Francisco did it was it wasn’t an outright ban on plastic bags,” he says. “It was called a ‘compostable bag mandate,’ which meant that grocers had the option of either using a compostable plastic bag, which could go into the city’s compost program, or use a paper bag, or provide reusable bags for sale to consumers.”
Of course, Heylen’s members had no desire to pay maybe five cents for a compostable plastic bag or paper bag instead of one cent for a standard plastic bag. And the plastics manufacturers had no desire to lose sales of their plastic bags. But under San Francisco’s virtually lawsuit-proof formula, they had to bite the bullet. It wouldn’t have been possible in San Diego because San Francisco has a curbside compost program that picks up organic waste, from flowers to food scraps and, potentially, compostable plastic bags, and hauls it off to the municipal compost heap. (In fact, the grocers never took to the compostable plastic bags. Both sides disliked them. They weren’t strong enough for the grocers, and composters complained that the bags took three times as long to break down as the compost scraps. The beach crowd complained that the corn-oil plastic bags decomposed only in compost-style 115-degree heat; in the cool ocean, they were as long lasting as ordinary plastic.)