I love the ocean. Nothing makes me happier than staring out and imagining all the life that is thriving below the surface. So you can imagine how I felt the first time I went scuba diving and the first thing I saw as I went under the waves was... you guessed it: a plastic bag.
As you read this, Californians are using an estimated 400 single-use plastic bags per second. These bags will soon join the 247 million pounds of bags that are thrown away in California each year, but this crop will be the last of its size thanks to SB 270 which was signed into law and bans single-use plastic bags from distribution by major retailers. Authored by Senator Alex Padilla, the law represents a key win for California and for our lakes, rivers and oceans. Here's why:
1. Single-use plastic bags put marine life at risk
The vast majority of the oceans' surface is polluted with plastic particles, 80 percent of which was trash on land that washed out to sea. These plastics may get broken down into tiny pieces, incorporated into glaciers, or swallowed up by animals, but they never really disappear; the EPA has reported that every piece of plastic manufactured in human history still exists. Plastic fragments in the ocean can absorb other pollutants such as PCBs and PAHs, known endocrine disrupters (that mess with our hormones) that can be harmful for animals and humans as they make their way of up the food chain.
Nearly 300 marine species eat plastic or become entangled in it, leading to thousands of premature deaths each year. Fish in the North Pacific alone ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic annually, which can cause choking, potentially fatal internal injuries or infection, and the accumulation of plastic higher in the food chain. Plastic bags are the most commonly ingested trash for sea turtles, because they resemble tasty jellyfish. Even if the turtles avoid infection, plastic causes a false sense of fullness in their stomachs that might lead them to slow or stop reproduction. At least 50 species of seabird eat trash and feed it to their young, which can reduce the available volume in their stomachs and lead to starvation.
Marine mammals are also known to ingest plastic, become inextricably tangled in it, or accumulate a significant build-up of chemicals from the fish that they eat. In the face of global warming, over-fishing, and other man-made disruptions to their ecosystem, marine life faces enough dangers without our excess of plastic junk.
2. Californians have been paying millions to clean up after ourselves, but plastics still leave a trace.
According to a study commissioned by NRDC last year, California's taxpayers spend around $428 million annually to prevent our trash from polluting the environment. And plastic bag litter alone- based on data from San Jose and Los Angeles County- costs between $34 and $107 million.
Even if we clean up the plastic bags from our beaches, parks and rivers, we can't undo their ugly legacy. First off, plastic bags are made from petroleum so just producing them contributes to global climate change. Secondly, we know that these bags don't break down, just stack up-and in California alone, approximately 24 billion plastic bags end up in landfills every year.
3. We chose long-term sustainability over short-term convenience
We know that plastic bags live forever, but how long is their working life? Twelve (12) minutes on average, between receiving our groceries and getting discarded. We don't need to rely on these shortsighted conveniences anymore; in California alone, there are at least 15 reusable bag companies that will only become more productive with the new plastic bag ban. SB 270 appropriated $2 million to help single-use plastic bag manufacturers build their production of reusable bags and create more jobs. Reusable bags, like reusable cutlery and water bottles, are an easy but significant step towards reducing our addiction to plastic and living greener.
4. A true grassroots victory
SB 270 was signed into law on the heels of 100 Californian localities enacting their own bans against plastic bags. The Yes on SB 270 coalition included environmental groups, grocers, unions, business organizations, poverty rights organizations, retailers, waste management firms and Latino-led grassroots organizations such as the Latino Coalition for a Plastic Bag Ban. This strong, broad-based movement is what we need to tackle the many environmental challenges facing our state, from air pollution to water sustainability.
5. California's continued environmental leadership
As important as it is to make changes on a household level, which millions of tote bag-toting Californians already have, the scale of the problem requires that we cut pollution off at its source. SB 270 creates a model for other states to follow that will prevent pollution while growing the green economy.
So the next time you shop, bring your reusable bag. Doing our part while other states and countries adopt more laws like this one will help to ensure that others won't have to remember their first time beneath the waves in the form of a plastic bag.