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California Drops the Ball on Plastic Bag Ban

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California was poised to pass the first statewide ban of single-use plastic bags in America when the legislation was defeated by a 21-14 vote on the floor of the California Senate yesterday. The vote disappointed many including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a supporter of the legislation that had gained widespread support from a diverse coalition including the California Grocers Association, labor, business and environmental groups. Despite yesterday's loss on the Senate floor, California will continue to lead the nation with local bans throughout the state that will eventually achieve a significant reduction in plastic pollution from single-use plastic bags.

America as a nation is behind the curve on the issue of controlling plastic pollution as more than 40 jurisdictions worldwide have already banned single-use plastic bags, including China and Mexico City. The jurisdictions that have banned single-use plastic bags are home to 25% of the world population.

Why did the Single-Use Bag Reduction Act, AB 1998, fail when similar legislation has passed all around the globe? Many articles will be written about the corruption of our state legislators who took money from the main opposition to the legislation, the American Chemistry Council. While I believe that finance reform is key to resurrecting a functioning Democracy both in California and in the nation, I wish to examine why the average American has not yet come to associate single-use plastic bags with the terrible environmental and economic toll these bags exact. When the majority of Americans understand that plastic bags are not free but actually very costly to them, the balance will tip toward statewide bans.

Americans pay for clean-up of plastic bag pollution through our taxes. In California we spend billions to clean up beaches, to unclog storm drains, and to de-litter parks and roadways. In addition, there is the enormous cost we all pay to landfill these bags because they are almost impossible to recycle. We tried a recycling requirement for plastic bags in California and still haven't achieved more than a 5% recycling rate. Plastic bags blow away from trash containers, recycling facilities and even landfills. Recyclers hate the bags. They jam the machines; they produce little material for the effort; and virgin material is more cost-effective for bag manufacturers. So in America, taxpayers pay an enormous price to deal with everlasting waste from plastic bags after they are used just once by shoppers.

In other nations, where waste management is not covered by taxpayers, the bags are literally taking over the countryside and people can see the results of the single-use mentality all around them, all the time. This awareness results in citizen-led protest and demand for government response. While we have visible plastic bag pollution here in America, most of our plastic waste is landfilled and filling our waterways and oceans where it is out of sight for most people. We need to communicate the real costs of plastic bag pollution to Americans so that they will demand legislative action. Once plastic bag bans free our tax dollars from the impossible mission of controlling plastic bag pollution, we can use this money on other priorities. As many states like California grapple with bad economic times, cost savings on needless expenditures should be taken very seriously.

In the wake of California's failure to lead as a state, we can take heart that change is easy to make on a personal level. We can each bring our reusable bags to the market. When asked "paper or plastic?" say "neither" and present a washable, long-lasting canvas bag. In addition, we can work to create a patchwork of local bans that will drive the call for statewide and even national legislation.

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