Archived entries for Uncategorized


Plastic Bag Policies in San Francisco and DC, Part 1 of 3: Background

In an analysis that will come in three parts, I’m going to take a look at the implementation of policies intended to curb community litter levels by either banning the distribution of plastic carrier bags in major grocery stores (the policy of San Francisco, California, adopted in 2007) or placing a small fee on every bag, regardless of composition material, distributed by any merchant who sells any kind of edible product (as was enacted in Washington, D.C. in 2010). After briefly recounting the international background of the issue, I’ll examine the causal theory and implementation method of each approach, highlighting the successes and failures of each. In the second part, I find that in San Francisco, the policy missed its intended mark (and in fact the proportion of street litter from plastic bags went up), while the bag fee imposed in D.C. drastically reduced the accumulation of new garbage in the Anacostia River while simultaneously raising the funds to clean up the existing litter.

The final part of this analysis contains recommendations for communities wishing to implement policies to diminish plastic bag litter in their own jurisdictions, based on my assessment of these differing implementation plans.


Various policies to reduce plastic bag litter in community environments have been adopted and even encoded in law across the world. There is a growing environmental concern about the staggering amount of plastic bags consumed per annum, each of which generally turns into a piece of litter which not only are a blight on the landscape of a community but which also pose a serious threat to the health of citizens, wildlife, and surrounding bodies of water.

Since 2002 when Ireland became the first country to enact a per-bag tax on disposable carrier sacks, several countries and local communities have followed suit, adopting either a bag tax or an outright ban on the flimsy plastic carrier bags which have become so ubiquitous since the widespread adoption of their use in the last 1970s. In 2007, San Francisco, CA became the first city in the US to ban these plastic bags (though it only banned non-compostable bags and only at major retail chains and pharmacies; paper bags and those made from compostable plastic were still allowed, and the restrictions did not apply to small or local stores). In January of 2010, Washington, D.C. became the first US jurisdiction to impose a per-bag fee, a charge of five cents on each of any type of disposable carrier sack (including paper) taken by a consumer at the end of a purchase. These policies had the same goal but differing implementation approaches and very different actual outcomes, as we will see below.

Stakeholders (applies to both cities)

  • Local and state government: no states have yet attempted implementation of a state-wide bag ban or fee, but state governments (like in California) have been involved in legislation to reduce litter, especially that from plastic bags
  • Stores, merchants, and retailers: if bag bans are imposed, merchants are required to provide alternatives to plastic (and sometimes paper) bags, which are almost always more expensive
  • Plastic bag manufacturers: clearly have a vested interest in maintaining their production levels and sales; frequently attempt to discredit and/or block plastic bag bans
  • Consumers: expected to carry the burden of bringing their own bags or paying a fee
  • American Chemistry Council (ACC): the trade group of the plastics industry, which frequently acts in support of plastic bag manufacturers by sponsoring local campaigns against bans or fees
  • Environmental organizations and activists: these groups are largely responsible for raising awareness of the problem of plastic bag litter (usually through research and publication of reports); they also undertake the lobbying of politicians and bureaucrats required to introduce and advance legislation against plastic bags

Policy Formulation

The justifications for bag bans are quite clear and generally consistent across localities: plastic bags are difficult (and often impossible) to recycle; these bags are lightweight and thrown away or cast aside, at which point they frequently take to the air and end up as litter; this litter is a visual blight on a community and can actually cause serious risk to the health of the public and wildlife. (Plastic bags can and often do clog sewers and other drainage systems during heavy rains, which can cause devastating flooding. They also frequently end up being ingested by wild animals of all species (land and water, mammal and reptilian), causing death and even distinction.) However, the overwhelming ubiquity of plastic bags makes them a particularly difficult issue to tackle. Practically every person in the country, upon making a retail purchase, places that purchase in a plastic bag. The estimated annual consumption of plastic bags in the US is approximately 100 billion bags per year. Not only are there vested and powerful industrial interests focused on keeping plastic bags as the norm in grocery and other retail stores, but there is some degree of consumer backlash against the responsibility of bringing your own bags or the “big government” imposition of a fee on bags. So while the justifications for behavior change are valid, the resistance to change is strong.

Development of Justifications and Objectives

Frequently, the impetus for change within a county or municipality (so far, the only political/geographic region implementing bag bans or fees in the US) comes from research and reporting by local government or environmentally-conscious nonprofit organizations. In San Francisco in 2005, the city’s Department of the Environment contracted a report on local plastic bag usage, finding that approximately 180 million plastic bags were being used annually just within San Francisco. Two years later, the city imposed a ban of “traditional” plastic shopping bags on all major grocery retailers in the city. In Washington, D.C., efforts to reduce litter in the Anacostia River led to a report issued in 2008; the “Anacostia Watershed Trash Reduction Plan” found that the vast majority of litter in the river was from plastic bags. The next year, in almost direct response to this finding, the city passed the “Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act”, which instituted a 5 cent fee on every plastic or paper bag consumed at any store that sells food or alcohol.

The objective in both cases is clear: reduce the impact of plastic bag litter on the local environment. However, the policy adopted in these two cases is different: while San Francisco adopted a ban on only single-use, non-compostable plastic bags, Washington instituted a fee for every disposable bag taken on a trip to a grocery store. In other jurisdictions across the country, the decision to ban plastic bags versus instituting a per-bag fee has been a frequent matter of some debate. A considerable portion of the public feels that either situation is an imposition on consumers, and plastic bag manufacturers have rallied and lobbied against both efforts to change consumer behavior.

Jane Patton, Plastic Pollution Coalition


(image via Inhabitat)

(editor’s note:  Ban The Bag Blogger, Julie Lawson was recently quoted in a Huffington Post article where the writer called Washington D.C.’s fee on plastic bags, ‘tax revenue.’ We’re pretty sure that steam came out of Julie’s ears, so Julie decided to write a post on unpacking industry rhetoric with regard to bag fees and what the actual definition of a tax is. What might seem like a simple mistake by a green blogger actually has huge implications for the movement as a whole. For example, industry defeated a Seattle Bag Ban in 2008 by lobbying against a ‘tax measure.’  No doubt the writer who penned the piece was unaware of the difference, and later dismissed an email from me attempting make the distinction for him. Thanks Julie for setting the record straight. And for all you people out there fighting the good fight, listen up.)

The most common refrain from industry’s echo chamber on a proposed bag fee is:  “it’s a tax,” and taxes, as we all know, is politically a very bad word. Even among fellow advocates, it seems like I am constantly correcting people when they refer to “Washington, DC’s bag tax.” It’s a fee, and I’m not just being a hard-ass worried about appearances when I correct people. They really are two different things.

The five cents charged for single-use plastic and paper bags in DC is a fee because the purpose of the charge isn’t to raise revenue–it’s to encourage people to use reusable bags, and reduce the number of bags entering the waste/recycling/litter stream. Also, the proceeds are tied directly to the consequences of using that bag: litter prevention and river restoration.

As described by the Tax Foundation, and written by now US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in 1992, there are three tests to define a charge as a tax:

– who imposes the assessment

– who pays the assessment

– what the revenue is spent on

If the answer to each is broad (a legislative body vs. a regulatory body; the general public vs. specific users; and general revenue vs. specific fund), then it qualifies as a tax. DC’s bag fee only meets the first point. This distinction was clarified by the Virginia Supreme Court in 2008:

“When the primary purpose of an enactment is to raise revenue, the enactment will be considered a tax, regardless of the name attached to the act….”

As the Tax Foundation continues on its blog:

“The converse of that is that when the primary purpose of an enactment is to offset the cost of providing a service, it is a fee.”

Another way to look at the bag fee is as a user fee. Unlike a tax, you don’t have to pay it. People who choose single-use bags can pay for the privilege. Shoppers who decline to use a bag, or bring their own, don’t pay it. Now, to complicate matters, Montgomery County, Maryland, does officially call their five-cent bag charge an excise  tax, because it is applied to a specific good. They used this definition because of an unusual authority the county has to enact excise taxes without permission from the state’s General Assembly. (Prince George’s County does not have this authority, so they have to request permission just to consider a bag ordinance! However, Montgomery County still expects the revenues to diminish over time, and the proceeds are targeted to stormwater improvements and litter abatement. It still only meets the first of the three criteria for being a tax, as in DC.

So when confronted by industry shills that automatically bleats, “It’s a tax!” your simplest reply is: “No, the intent is not to raise revenue, and you don’t have to pay it if you don’t use the bag,” and if they press you, get a little nastier and say, “What’s at issue here is that it’s terrible that we have to impose a fee at all, shouldn’t YOU (industry) be paying to cleanup the mess your product creates in the environment? What we need is a tax on YOU, to shift the burden of cleanup from the taxpayer to the polluting industry that creates the mess in the first place.”

(Julie Lawson, Washington D.C. Surfrider)

Hailey, Idaho Inspires New Environmental Leaders

Earlier this month, the plastic bag ban initiative in the city of Hailey, Idaho lost by 864 to 620.  As mentioned in an earlier post, the initiative was put on the ballot through a signature drive launched by the Wood River High School Environment Club (W.A.T.E.R).  This seemed like a great high school lesson in civics, until the plastics industry caught wind of it.  Suddenly, Hailey Idaho became ground zero in the plastics industry’s campaign against these laws.  Hilex Poly, a large plastic bag manufacturer, created a website and took out television and newspaper advertisements warning that 125 that jobs at a local plastics plant could be jeopardized by the ban. The students fought back by writing editorials to the local papers, but in the end the plastics industry prevailed.

It’s important for these students to remember that even though the initiative lost, this was still a huge accomplishment.  They should take pride that they did something so meaningful as to scare a big corporation into coming to their town of 6,200 residents and spending serious money.  Luckily, the students seem to be taking the loss in stride and are considering re-focusing their energies on a nearby town.  I am working on an interview with the Hailey students to discuss their future plans and how their story can and should be used as inspiration for other student environmental groups.

I’d like to highlight a few other student-led movements that are also inspirational.

Heal the Bay in Los Angeles is holding a Youth Leadership Training Day for students to learn how to support a reusable bag campaigns in their communities.  As mentioned in an earlier post by contributor (and Santa Monica High student) Jessica Kendall-Bar, Santa Monica High School’s environmental clubs have worked non-profits, including Heal the Bay and Surfrider Foundation, to establish the plastic bag ban in Santa Monica.  The Youth Leadership Training Day will give students the knowledge to help push bag bans forward in other Los Angeles County cities.

In Orange County (CA), the South Orange County Chapter of Surfrider currently has twelve high school Surfrider groups, where the students are mentored by adult Surfrider volunteers and executive committee members.  The students attend local city council meetings, participate in “Day Without a Bag” events, and travel to Sacramento to speak with legislators.

This news from Hailey should also inspire other small cities to move forward with putting plastic bag ordinances on the ballot.  For cities small cities with the political will (i.e. enough votes) to pass these ordinances, voter initiatives are a good option that is often overlooked.  This is particularly true in California, where voter initiatives do not fall under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) restrictions and therefore are not vulnerable to lawsuits by Save the Plastic Bag Coalition the way ordinances approved by city councils are.  That’s why the Town of Farifax chose to adopt its plastic bag ordinance pursuant to a voter initiative in 2008 after threat of a CEQA lawsuit.  To date, Fairfax is the only California municipality to adopt an ordinance via voter initiative.  Voter initiatives are a viable option for some communities – and they should be seriously considered.  Hilex Poly can’t pay to lobby against plastic bag initiatives in every small town . . . right?

– Jennie R. Romer, Esq., Founder & Director, plasticbaglaws [dot] org


I feel just a little better about democracy today.

Yesterday I listened to a city council member who I voted for say “Anything that we use for a couple of minutes should not stick around for hundreds of years!”

Commissioner Mike O’Brien was a staunch advocate for the original bag bill, which proposed a $.20 fee of which $.15 was devoted to new recycling programs and cleanups by the city of Seattle, and $.5 went to the grocery stores. The bag fee ordinance passed in city council in July 2008 (Ord. 122752), and then failed soundly when it was put to a vote in August of 2009. It’s a good lesson— industry calls the fee (which is collected to pay for the cost to taxpayers to deal with the waste the bag industry generates) a tax, fully aware of the political climate they can exploit to win cynically, appealing to anti-tax activists. And they’ll spend anything they have to on misinformation campaigns. What’s ironic is that the true cost to taxpayers comes at the end of life of a private corporation’s product–  cleanup. And it’s expensive.

At the hearing, I heard from four Seattle city council members, representatives from five different grocery store chains, a small business owner, representatives from environmental groups including Jody Kennedy from Surfrider Foundation, and a number of other community leaders voice their support for a Seattle city bag ban. The proposed ordinance would ban all single-use plastic grocery bags from all stores in the city of Seattle and would place a $.05 fee on paper bags–  that fee is waived for those using food stamps. Stores keep the $.05 for increased cost of paper.  I was impressed by the economic assessments offered by the grocers, both big and small; plastic bags are expensive and wasteful on every level, and if citizens brings their own bags, grocery stores can and will pass those savings to their customers. PCC, a high end grocery store,  eliminated plastic bags four years ago. At that time, ¼ of their shoppers used reusable bags. Now 2/3 do, and the numbers will continue to climb when all other grocery stores follow suit after the bag ban is put into effect in July 2012.

What remains to be seen is whether the American Chemistry Council and plastic bag manufacturer Hilex Poly can force and defeat a ballot measure again. Hilex Poly consistently touts ‘more recycling’, which will never be a solution because such an absurdly small proportion of plastic bags are recycled– the percentage is so small, no one even accurately can say what it is– but after Hilex Poly sued ChicoBag earlier this year, it came out that Hilex was including all polyethylene in their numbers including films and wraps.  After losing to Chico, they had to revise their numbers on bags, which is probably more in the order of fewer than 1% are recycled. Yikes.

Below is the letter I wrote to the editor of the Seattle Times, which they posted on their opinion blog:

Seattle council may ban plastic bags, Nov. 14, 2011

Dear Seattle Times editors:

The plastic bag ban has my support for both economic and environmental reasons. Plastic bags are difficult and expensive to recycle, they clog machines and sell for less than the labor used to sort and shred them. Plastic bags are made from petroleum, most of which we import from outside of the US. Plastic bags are toxic to marine and terrestrial life, and they kill anything that mistakenly consumes them. The country’s largest manufacturers of plastic bags, the ACC, spent 1.4 million dollars to defeat the bag fee here in seattle in 2008. They didn’t do it because they care about your freedom to put your dog’s poop in one of their bags, they did it because when it comes to plastic bags, they reap the profits and taxpayers pay the price. Tell big plastic to go the way of lead paint, DDT, and asbestos: bring your own bag.

-Abigail McCarthy

Seattle Surfrider Foundation Chapter

San Francisco Looks To Expand Bag Ordinance.

On Tuesday, San Francisco’s City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee voted 3-0 to approve San Francisco’s proposed expanded plastic bag ordinance.  Committee approval means that the ordinance may now be voted on by the full Board of Supervisors, which is expected in early December.  The new ordinance would apply to all retailers and restaurants and includes a ban on plastic bags and a 10-cent minimum charge on all paper and reusable bags provided at the register, which increases to 25 cents one year after implementation.   The charge on reusable bags in addition to paper bags is particularly important so that no bags are given away for free at checkout.

As mentioned in a previous post, in 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the US to adopt a plastic bag ban.  San Francisco’s ban currently only applies to supermarkets and large pharmacies.  This is referred to as a “first generation” ordinance because it only addresses plastic bags.  More recently, “second generation” ordinances that include a charge on paper bags have become standard in California.  In 2010, Supervisor Mirkarimi introduced an expanded “second generation” ordinance, but that was tabled pending resolution of lawsuits in other cities regarding what type of review was required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  CEQA has been used as a tool by plastics industry groups in California to delay or overturn plastic bag ordinances by filing lawsuits against cities demanding that expensive Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) are required.

In July of this year, the California Supreme Court ruled on the Manhattan Beach case, finding that Manhattan Beach’s negative declaration was sufficient and that an EIR was not necessary.  In September of this year, the Marin County Superior Court found that a categorical exemption was applicable to Marin’s ordinance.  Part of the reason that Marin’s ordinance qualified for a categorical exemption was because it is a second generation ordinance that addresses paper as well as plastic by banning plastic bags and requiring a minimum 5-cent charge for paper bags.  In the wake of these decisions, San Francisco made the decision to move forward with its expanded ordinance using a categorical exemption.

On November 1, 2011, Supervisor Mirkarimi re-introduced the revised expanded ordinance and the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee hearing soon followed.

At the hearing, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce spoke in support and made clear that the current version of the ordinance (that included minor amendments introduced at the Committee hearing) was a product of outreach to the business community over the previous week.  The small amendments made to the ordinance based on input from the business community go to show that outreach to businesses is important and that sometimes it can just be a matter of making sure that businesses understand the details of the ordinance and other times making minor to address particular issues.

For example, the most recent revisions to San Francisco’s ordinance include a clarification that garment bags may qualify as reusable bag even if they do not have handles, an exemption from the checkout bag charge for left-over food eaten at a sit down restaurant, and refinements to the reusable bags standard. Through reaching out to local business groups and determining what the issues were and how the issues could be addressed, San Francisco was able to produce a strong ordinance with broad support.

At the hearing, Save the Plastic Bag Coalition (SPBC), an association composed primarily of plastic bag manufacturers that have sued or threatened to sue almost every California city that has formally considered adopting a plastic bag ordinance, filed objections.   SPBC was the only group that spoke in opposition to the ordinance.

The ordinance is expected to be heard before the full Board of Supervisors in early December.

– Jennie R. Romer, Esq., Founder & Director, plasticbaglaws [dot] org

How Litter Enters Your Ocean: A Sewage Journey

San Francisco’s sewage and stormwater are treated together in a combined sewer system made up of over 1,000 miles of underground pipes. Combined sewer systems are rare, there are only 772 left in the United States, and they exist mainly in America’s oldest cities. San Francisco is one of two cities in California and is the only coastal city with such a system. San Francisco’s pipes are over one hundred years old and many sections are built of bricks that are fragile and in need of repair.

Aside from the potential problems summarized in San Francisco’s 2030 Sewer System Master Plan, the combined sewer system captures 90% of the sewer and stormwater on an average (non-rainy) day. This ends up being about 80 million gallons of wastewater per day. The wastewater is treated at two water treatment plants that pump the treated wastewater offshore from outfall pipe off the beach.  The California Regional Water Quality Control Board (Water Board) sets requirements for pollutant levels discharged into California waters. Through this process, the wastewater is filtered, meaning trash is removed prior to discharge.

Larger problems arise on rainy days when the combined sewer system, which can handle close to 500 million gallons per day, is stressed by large quantities of rainwater. Several stormwater holding tanks are located around the City that when pressed on rainy days will overflow directly into the Bay and ocean, carrying pollutants and litter.

An obvious technique to control the situation is to reduce stormwater entering the system. Surfrider’s Plant Don’t Pave Project encourages locals to replace non-permeable surfaces, mostly concrete with permeable surfaces. San Francisco Surfrider partners with the Friends of the Urban Forest on expanding efforts to grow native plants in areas that were once covered in concrete. Simply, if runoff and water use is reduced, less wastewater will be in the system hopefully prolonging and reducing overflow times, meaning less trash would flow out to the oceanic gyres.

Specifically, 10% of San Francisco’s stormwater is not pumped into the combine sewer system and covered under another Water Board permit. Because California does not yet have a state-wide limit for trash entering water bodies, trash particles that may be entering the ocean from these storm drains are not monitored, which is true in many coastal cities. On a positive note, 77 of San Francisco Bay’s municipalities are included in an impressive permit requiring trash levels entering the Bay through storm drains be reduced to zero by 2022. There are similar requirements on the L.A. River where trash reductions are required. The hope is state-wide policy requiring trash reductions will become reality in the next couple of years.

Until then, efforts that continue to show that beach litter is a significant problem will help support the needed state-wide policy to limit trash entering our oceans. Last Saturday, over 70 volunteers at the Baker Beach Cleanup were the first to log litter as part of our new effort to catalog  trash at our monthly beach cleanups. The test-run found students and families interested in participating in “community science ” and hundreds of extremely small pieces of styrofoam and over 500 cigarette butts were picked up by the group.

Carolynn Box, San Francisco Surfrider

Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley is a Hotbed for Plastic Bag Ordinances

Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley is a hotbed of activity for plastic bag ordinances.  On September 27, 2011, the Town of Basalt voted to place a 20-cent charge on plastic and paper checkout bags.  On October 11, 2011, the Aspen City Council voted to ban plastic checkout bags and place a 20-cent charge on paper checkout bags.  On October 25, 2011 Town of Carbondale adopted an ordinance modeled after Aspen’s ordinance.

One of the reasons behind all of this activity in Colorado is the result of a bit of friendly competition.  Back in 2008, Telluride and Aspen took part in a “Aspen-Telluride Reusable Bag Challenge” where residents in both communities competed to see how many times they could bring reusable bags to the grocery store.  Telluride won the competition, which was particularly impressive because Telluride is only half the size of Aspen.  Then Telluride beat Aspen to passing a plastic bag ordinance – Telluride’s ordinance was adopted last October.  No doubt, the competition encouraged Aspen to pass its ordinance.

Aspen still gets something to brag about though.  Aspen’s ordinance is a stronger in that it includes a higher charge for paper bags (20 cents in Aspen, 10 cents in Telluride), which should act as a greater incentive for customers to bring their own reusable bags.

Adoption of these ordinances seemed to be moving along very smoothly, but just last week a citizen of Basalt filed the initial paperwork to overturn Basalt’s charge by voter referendum.  If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because that’s what was threatened with Telluride’s ban and, most famously, that’s what happened to Seattle’s 20-cent charge back in 2008.  In Seattle, The Coalition to Stop the Seattle Bag Tax spent more than $1.4 million, which included the American Chemistry Council’s contributions of more than $1 million.  Seattle’s charge was the first of its kind in the US and the plastic industry was desperate to not have a precedent for plastic bag charges.  The plastics industry won and Seattle’s bag charge was rescinded.  Since that time, the momentum for passing plastic bag ordinances has regained momentum, but the plastics industry’s resistance (particularly in California) still remains strong.

Fortunately, the threatened referendum in Telluride never came to fruition (the final paperwork was never filed) and Telluride’s ordinance went into effect on March 3, 2011.

The referendum route (or at least the threat of a referendum) seems to be popular in Colorado, perhaps due in part to relatively small population  sizes in the towns that have passed ordinances, which means that a small amount of signatures are needed to get such issues on the ballot (10 percent of the electorate).  For example, in Basalt the petitioner only has to collect 230 signatures from Basalt registered voters.  Once all of those signatures are collected, the Town Council must decide whether to rescind the ordinance or set an election on the issue.

Regardless, Colorado is moving forward with plastic bag ordinances and inspiring other jurisdictions to do the same.  Up next?  Boulder is considering an ordinance.

– Jennie R. Romer, Esq., Founder & Director, Plastic Bag Laws Dot Org

Plastic Wars on CNN Tonight!

Check out CNN tonight for’Plastic Wars.’ Part of the program will investigate plastic bag litter off the coast of California, diving through kelp forests looking at the havoc plastic bags cause.

Cynicism 101: Reusable Bag Scare Tactics.

Scare tactics are a powerful tool, defined as the use of fear to influence the opinions and actions of others towards some specific end. They grab attention and send a quick message that people listen to and remember. But often the message is exaggerated and misinforms the listeners. Dangerous rumors are developed that can be detrimental, especially to environmental campaigns.


Look at the plastic bag industry, an industry that supports the world’s addiction to plastic bags. The world uses approximately 1 million plastic bags per minute, which is not appropriate or acceptable by anyone’s standards. But this means big bucks for the plastic bag supporters. As environmentalists spread the word of this nonsense and try to cleanse our society of excess waste and environmental damage, the plastic industry pushes back hard. We all know this.

In June 2010, just months before California was scheduled to vote on Assembly Bill 1998 that would have banned the use of plastic bags in many grocery stores, the American Chemistry Council went the distance and released a study that declared that bacteria grew at unhealthy levels in reusable bags. Specifically, the study showed that six of the 87 reusable bags analyzed had E. Coli (ironically, the E. Coli was not at  dangerous levels!). Nevertheless, the study made headlines everywhere. California. Canada. Europe. Everyone was listening to a study that only tested 87 bags. How absurd. To top it off, I reviewed the study and found that there is NO statistical data showing if the study is even statistically significant. Isn’t this the one very, very important component of social science?

Also in 2010, a Washington D.C.-based organization called the Center for Consumer Freedom conducted a study on lead in reusable bags sold at big name stores, such as Walgreens and Safeway. The study found that 16 of the 44 bags tested had lead at levels above 100 ppm, the health limit for packaging in most states. Many of the bags were recalled, which led to more headlines.

The hype around both relatively basic and limited studies was detrimental to California passing the state-wide ban on plastic bags. Though the studies were not scientific and shouldn’t have been published in the first place, both scared the public and made many second guess the use of reusable bags. Thanks American Chemistry Council and Center for Consumer Freedom. The American Chemistry Council was obviously campaigning to support plastic bag use. I can’t figure out why the Center for Consumer Freedom conducted the study but the organization has argued against smoking bans. Enough said.

Ironically, the lead study does not list the acceptable bags. I have a feeling that the Northern California Reusable Bag Company Chico Bags would have been on the A list, which would have made the American Chemistry Council frown. The plastic bag industry sued Chico Bags, also in 2010, for unfair competition and false advertisement. Ha. The lawsuit was recently dropped but gained a lot of embarrassing media attention for the plastic industry.

Bottom line, the scare tactics and a bit of bullying by the plastic industry may have worked in 2010  but plastic bag bans continue to pass in U.S. cities. Aspen, Colorado passed a bag ban this month. Sorry plastic bag industry. The public is onto your scare tactics and it’s not going to stop us.

Double Bottom Line:  If you don’t wash your reusable bag, it gets dirty, just like your underwear.  Um, DUH!!!!

Carolynn Box, San Francisco Surfrider

Top 10 Pieces Of Garbage On Your Beach

I’ve been rummaging through the raw beach cleanup data from the Ocean Conservancy’s International Beach Cleanup Day online database. I feel somewhat fortunate and honored to have access to this data. I am fully aware that many people would be roll their eyes at the idea of me getting so excited over beach litter data. But data is powerful and this data set is particularly powerful.

Ocean Conservancy has a common data collection card that is used all over the world on the annual International Coastal Cleanup Day. Data from each cleanup is entered online, usually by the team that is heading up the cleanup. The program logs details from the number of volunteers to the pounds of litter collected to the types and quantities of litter picked up. The totals are separated and compared, resulting in percentages that definitely make my head spin. The dataset is 25 years old, though the database only shows limited years. I’ve also heard rumors that the data card will be revamped in 2012.

According to the data, over 4% of the beach litter collected in 2010 in the US was plastic straws (also includes plastic stirrers). Almost 10% of the beach litter was plastic lids and caps and at least 6.3% was plastic bottles. 295,424 plastic bags were collected in 2010, representing close to 7% of the total litter picked up. And over 1.2 million cigarette butts were picked up by at least 250,000 volunteers nationwide.  In total, 718,844 pieces of litter, representing almost 277,000 pounds, were removed from America’s beaches.

If you look at the beach data for just California and San Francisco County, the percentages are similar. Cigarette butts are the most common piece of litter. The 2nd and 3rd most common are food containers/wrappers and caps/lids, with plastic bags and plastic bottles follow closely behind.  Other items are plastic straws/stirrers, plastic cutlery, and rope — all plastic.  Of the top ten pieces of trash collected, seven of them are all comprised of plastics.

One of the major challenges with the data is that it is hard to visually display. Below is a picture of 62 straws that I picked up over about a mile stretch of Huntington Beach. You can use this to gauge what 32,124 plastic straws look like, the number of straws picked up in 2010 on International Beach Cleanup Day in California.

62 Plastic Straws picked up at Huntington Beach in California.

Bottom-line, none of us should be using plastic bottles, straws, cups, cutlery, or bags as part of our daily routine. We know this. And it is our responsibility to educate others that they should reduce their plastic footprint too.

With the attempt to better document the plastic found on our local beaches in the Bay Area and spread the anti-plastic movement, I am leading up the expansion of the San Francisco Surfrider Foundation’s current beach cleanup program. Our new beach cleanup program will include documenting and logging the type and quantity of beach litter picked up during each cleanup. Stay tuned.

Carolynn Box, SF Surfrider

Portland Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Copyright © 2004–2009. All rights reserved.

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