The Bay vs. the Bag: Only One Side Can Win

When the tobacco industry tried suing cities to stop restaurant smoking bans, it fueled public anger and resolve, not a resurgence of puffing. So it is striking to see the American Chemistry Council (ACC) using the same heavy handed tactics against cities trying to reduce or eliminate plastic bags, a dominant feature of urban trash and ocean pollution.

From Phoenix to Philadelphia, and Seattle to Washington, D.C., the ACC has unleashed lawyers, lobbyists and PR flacks against local efforts to kick the plastic bag habit. But this attempt to protect industry profits could backfire, because it's based on myths that are flimsier than the bags themselves.

Plastic bag pollution is growing, and its impact on our rivers, bays and oceans is well documented. Plastic never biodegrades in a marine environment, but it does leach poisons into our water and smother wetlands. Wildlife often become entangled in plastic bags and mistake pieces of plastic for food.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating island of trash in the North Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas, where scientists have found plastic particles are more abundant than plankton. That's hard to believe, until you realize that in California alone, we use 19 billion plastic bags annually, and at least 1 million end up in San Francisco Bay each year.

Yes, even in the ultra-green Bay Area, bags blow and flow into San Francisco Bay, then out the Golden Gate to join this toxic brew. My daughters can testify to the waves of bags that they pick up at every shoreline cleanup event -- and they know these come not from sloppy boaters, but from all of us on land. That's why Save the Bay and other groups are supporting policies that promote reusable bags by placing fees on single-use plastic and paper bags, or banning them entirely.

The ACC is apoplectic. This plastics industry giant beat back a dozen municipal efforts to reduce plastic bag use across the country, pressuring New York, Phoenix and Philadelphia to instead adopt weak "recycling encouragement" schemes that haven't made a measurable dent in bag litter. But as more cities take up the cause, the plastics folks are desperately escalating their tactics.

In the nation's capitol, the industry is funding robo-calls to residents of low-income neighborhoods claiming a 5 cent fee on paper and plastic bags will hurt them disproportionately, prompting a backlash from city council members who say poor constituents care deeply about their trashed neighborhoods. In Seattle, after blocking a city council ordinance, the industry is now spending lavishly against a ballot measure to place a 20 cent fee on paper and plastic bags.

Here in California the ACC has thrown everything it can against city fee and ban efforts, knowing that California is a trend-setter on environmental policy. When the industry sued to stop Oakland's bag ordinance, the courts ruled that the city needed a study to prove that banning plastic bags wouldn't negatively impact the environment -- now cash-strapped Oakland is searching for the $100,000 to pay for such a study.

Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach were set to pass ordinances banning single-use plastic bags from all retail establishments, but postponed taking action after receiving a lawsuit threat from the group*

The next big battle will be in San Jose, the region's largest city and the third-largest in California. Save the Bay is working with San Jose on bold legislation to require a 25 cent fee on all single use bags distributed by all retailers. Paper bags would also be subject to the fee because they require an enormous amount of energy and millions of trees to produce. The answer to "paper or plastic?" is "neither -- here's my reusable bag!"

I have a closet full of reusable cloth shopping bags that I usually remember to take with me -- the fee will help reinforce good habits and help everyone kick the bag habit. In the first year that Ireland instituted such a fee, plastic bag litter dropped by 93 percent and plastic bag use decreased by approximately 90 percent, and these dramatically lower levels of plastic bag use and litter are being sustained.

California is upping the ante with a statewide approach to relieve cities from the cost and effort of taking on the plastics industry one by one. California Assembly Bill 68, which would require a 25 cent fee on plastic and paper bags, is bidding for support from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has made ridding our bays and oceans of trash a signature issue.

Will requiring fees on plastic bags be a hardship during this tough economy? Actually, we all are paying for plastic bags already through local taxes to combat litter and clean up trash-clogged waterways, and through hidden bag costs added to food and retail prices. But it costs nothing to B.Y.O.B. (bring your own bag) and in fact, many stores like Safeway and Whole Foods give credit to customers who do.

The more people learn about this issue, the more allies the industry loses. Local recyclers hate the bags jamming their sorting machines, and even some supermarket chains are remaining neutral rather than alienate the residents and leaders of their communities who are working to improve the local quality of life.

A healthy San Francisco Bay is essential to our quality of life and economy around here, and it's one of the nation's most beloved and iconic natural resources. Reducing plastic bag use would make a huge difference for the Bay, which is home to 500 species of wildlife, millions of migrating birds, and a critical nursery for salmon and other fish.

For nearly 50 years Save the Bay has been fighting pollution and development to protect the Bay. Now we're fighting to overcome the plastic industry's desperate tactics and win the battle of the Bay vs. the Bag. Learn more here.

* An earlier version of this post mistakenly suggested that was affiliated with the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a Virginia-based industry trade association. SaveThe Plastic is a coalition whose members include, but are not limited to plastic bag manufacturers and distributors.