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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.)

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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

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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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