• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

• 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.”

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


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:


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"...


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:



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..



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


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


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?


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


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.


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.


Sign in to comment

Get $5 off any Reader event

Sign up for our email list to get your promo code