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Bag Bans on Tap this Month for RA Meeting

Join Recycling Advocates for their Annual Meeting in Portland at the Rogue Brewery September 26 from 6:30pm to 8:30pm. They’ll be discussing current efforts and reduction policies for plastic, with a particular focus on the bag ban policies in Portland and around the state. More info

A Better Bag Ban

As the one year anniversary of Portland’s action to ban plastic checkout bags approaches, it’s a good time to pause and take into account what’s happening around the state as well as revisit the effectiveness of Portland’s ordinance. The city took an important first step in the state of Oregon, ridding the mass consumption, inevitable pollution and waste-stream problems that these pesky plastic bags incur. But did the city go far enough, what are other Oregon cities doing and what’s on the horizon for the state?

Undoubtedly, the City of Portland made huge strides in cutting down on the plastic bag waste-stream, about 8.5 million fewer plastic bags per month, according to a report from just 23 of the 55 major grocers that participated in the Northwest Grocery Association’s 6 month study following the ban. In just six months, in just those subset of stores, we are talking about 52 million bags! This simply just demonstrates the scale of the issue, imagine if all retailers in Portland banned plastic bags!

That seems convincing enough, and the sky certainly didn’t fall after the ban took affect; yet, a closer look into the report demonstrates a slight increase in reusable bag use and a steep increase (nearly 500 percent) in paper. The bag ban in itself while eliminating plastic, was just as important an effort to shift people towards reusables. We applaud the work of the City of Portland, the partnerships and all of the Bring Your Bag” outreach and education work, but we feel we’re still not hitting our ultimate goal through this current policy as the paper bags stack up.

That, and a little nudge from the businesses and grocery association that feels the burden of increased paper bag use, is exactly what put Corvallis and now Eugene on the track for banning plastic bags and requiring a nickel pass through cost for paper bags. Corvallis last week trumped Portland’s ordinance, applying the plastic bag ban to all retailers in the city and requiring a 5 cent pass through cost on paper bags to encourage reusable bags.

Simply put, the pass through cost helps shift consumer behavior. We live in a capitalistic society and decisions consumers make are highly motivated by the dollar. And, it doesn’t take much as we look around to see what other cities are doing. Certainly the path to ban plastic bags was laid in San Francisco, sans fee on paper, but revisiting the policy years later, San Francisco was joined by 40 some cities in California that found the fee necessary based on consumer behaviors. A necessity, but does it really work?

Consider this, in Washington DC a bag fee was placed on plastic bags and the little 5 cents shifted consumers from an estimated 270 million bags per year to 55 million bags per year. The businesses that reported, estimated a range of bag use down by 50%-80%. And that makes good business cents too…nickels add up to business savings and the dramatic decrease in bag use means substantial reduction in overhead costs to businesses.

As Eugene, Ashland, Newport and others in Oregon look to move on the plastic bag issue, we hope they will keep in mind what we’ve learned and what Corvallis took to law last week, plastic bag bans are about shifting consumer behaviors to reusable options. The application to all retailers and the pass through cost on paper are the most effective strategies to do this. It makes good business sense. It makes good environmental sense. With these cities actions in mind and Portland on the cusp of revisiting the ordinance, it’s clear that when Salem fails to act, the citizens will act locally…before you know it, the next legislative session will be underway.

A LETTER FROM SEATTLE: WE WON AGAIN

(Editor’s Note: The above attack ad was created by Hilex Poly, a plastic bag importer and manufacturer who has been at the forefront of the plastic bag debate. The ad is purposely misleading and demonstrates Hilex’s campaign of misinformation and deceit. It also demonstrates their increasing desperation and aggression. The tide has turned in the public’s popular will to ban the bag, and we’re winning. Conscious of this fact, Hilex’s tactics have become increasingly more cynical. Expect more of the same or worse.)

Seattle city council unanimously passed a ban on plastic bags on December 19th, 2012. We now join the ranks of other forward-thinking cities worldwide (Portland, Bellingham, DC, San Francisco, to name a few) who have banned single-use plastic bags. The ordinance, based on the Bellingham, WA, ordinance passed earlier this year, bans plastic bags at checkout in all retail stores, but allows for bag use in the meat and produce departments. It also requires grocers to charge five cents for the use of a paper bag at checkout; this fee is waived for people on food assistance programs.

This is a common sense ordinance, enacted for common sense reasons. We Seattle-ites take pride in our beautiful Puget Sound, in our clean, green parks, and in our progressive policies. This ban confirms all of those positive things about our city and our values, but it was passed for straightforward economic reasons. The city needs to reduce the waste we generate so we can save money processing that waste, and it needs to reduce the amount of garbage on our streets and on our beaches to cut the cost of cleaning it all up. To quote a Washington State legislative finding, it is: “necessary to change manufacturing and purchasing practices and waste generation behaviors to reduce the amount of waste that becomes a governmental responsibility”. That’s it in a nutshell. Those bags may seem like they’re free when a grocery clerk hands you one for your pack of gum, and they may seem like a real bargain when you re-use them (once) to contain your other trash or your dog’s business, but their actual cost to taxpayers is high. Like all other plastic products the responsibility for their ultimate disposal does not lie with the companies who produce them, it lies with you and me, regardless if we consume plastic bags or not, and in Seattle we would rather not pay to pick up Hilex Poly’s trash. And as of July, 2012 we won’t have to.

Abigail McCarthy/ Seattle Surfrider Chapter

BAG BANS: A CRITICAL HISTORY PART 1

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.

Background

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

LET’S TALK ABOUT SUCCESS, BABY.

Success stories on banning plastic bags are happening all over the world, including Asia, India, Australia, and Europe. Several Cities in the United States are also starting to ban single use plastic bags. Plastic bag bans have been initiated and implemented by governments, cities, non-profits, and environmental organizations.

Typically when people think of the plastic bag bans, they think of the marine life plastic kills. What they don’t realize is how much oil it takes to make those bags, and the other environmental hazards they cause in addition to threatening our own health and safety. Plastic bags block storm drains contributing to floods, leak toxic chemicals into our water and soil, as well as killing marine life, birds, and cows by starvation and suffocation. 1998, in Bangladesh, plastic bags were discovered to be the main cause of the devastating floods. There were over 1000 deaths in 1998 as two thirds of the country was submerged. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban all plastic shopping bags. Also, in the city of Mumbai, officials say storm drains clogged with littered plastic shopping bags were partially to blame for disastrous floods in 2005 that killed more than 400 people. Now in Mumbai, the plastic bags are totally illegal. In South Africa, before plastic bags were banned in 2003, the bags were nicknamed the national “flower” as so many bags littered the roadsides, stuck to fences and trees. That year, the government passed one of the strictest bans in existence: a fine of $13,800 dollars or a ten year jail sentence on bags thinner than 30 microns (thicker bags are easier to recycle) (Web 2011, Fair Companies).

In the United States, attempts by legislators to ban or restrict the use of plastic bags have been derailed several times in recent years by lobbying by plastics manufacturers. But recently, just as of October 15, 2011, the City of Portland has banned single-use plastic bags at major grocery outlets. A similar ban has gone into effect in cities such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C. In D.C., January of 2010, after a five-cent fee went into effect, the result was seen in only five months with a 60 percent reduction in plastic bag litter in the Anacostia River (2011, Washington City Paper).

In other countries, such as China, positive environmental effects were seen almost immediately. Only one year after the ban in China, it is estimated that 1.6 million tons of oil has been saved from not producing the plastic bags. The China Chain Store Franchise Association estimated it as saved the country of 40 billion plastic bags, reducing plastic bag use by two-thirds (2009, The Guardian).

In Ireland, in 2002, a tax was placed on every single bag in the country. This reduced plastic bag use by 90 percent in the first year and raised 18 million dollars for recycling efforts (2007, CNB News).

It is difficult to enforce the bag bans especially when they are not consistent and vary from city to city and state to state. A key part is public education and awareness. It is changing consumer habits. As more cities and people get on board, I believe we will see a growing positive change. Just think of all the oil, birds, cows, people, and marine life we have saved already. I believe the plastic bag ban is very sustainable as it encourages people to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Lisa Lynch, Portland Chapter, Surfrider Foundation

NOTES FROM A SEATTLE BAG BAN!!!


(photo courtesy of Seattle.gov)

About twenty Surfrider volunteers joined People for Puget Sound, the Sierra Club, Environment Washington, and numerous private citizens to support the proposed ban on single-use plastic bags in Seattle at the Seattle city council meeting on December 5th, 2011. You can watch the public hearing here, if you so desire.

Four city council members were in attendance, with the sponsor of the proposed ban, Mike O’Brien, moderating the meeting. Surfrider’s Shannon Serrano started off the hearing with a brief explanation of what Surfrider stands for and who we are, followed by our reasons for wanting to ban the bag. Much of the testimony that followed Shannon’s was along the same lines: love for the ocean and a desire to share it with future generations combined with a strong sense of personal responsibility towards the environment and a belief that our daily choices affect the world around us. Speakers also made points about cutting down the city’s waste stream, saving money, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, toxic compounds leaching from plastic bags, and the ease of using reusable bags. Both the Seattle Restaurant Alliance and the NW Grocery Association (which includes QFC, Fred Meyers, and Safeway) spoke out in support of the proposed ban (both organizations were a part of the development of the ban), because it includes provisions for lower-income groups and because it’s not limited to just grocery stores–  it includes other retail outlets, which is similar to what is being proposed in San Francisco, as an update to their seminal bag ban. A gentleman from the Grocery Worker’s union spoke in support of the ban, saying that he felt that while it might impact the grocery baggers’ productivity, they supported the ban as it was a step in the right direction.

There was opposition, too. The majority of the opposition were employed by the plastics industry; a few spoke rather forcefully about their personal desire to continue using plastic bags for “free” or missed the point entirely by focusing on the evils of paper bags. There was also some discussion by the opposition about increasing recycling, although it’s clear that a bag ban will in no way decrease the amount of recycling done in Seattle– but will actually increase its efficiency.

One of my favorite moments in the hearing was when a whole family came up to give testimony in support of the ban. The children had asked that their mother and father to bring them to the hearing because they thought it was “ridiculous to use a material that endures forever for single use disposable items”. The mother spoke for her daughters when she said they were upset about the pacific garbage patch and they wanted to reduce their impact on the ocean. A student from the University of Washington spoke eloquently about how this law would help her generation change cultural norms and behaviors, and so many people spoke about taking responsibility for their own impacts on the planet.

The satisfaction I feel is not without a little bit irony.  Industry opposition defeated a bag ban by pouring more than a million dollars into misinformation campaigns just a few years ago.  Well, this time we’re going to win, and we’re going to win way bigger than we won three years ago and it’s nice to know that no matter how much money industry spends, they can’t stop the wave of common sense policies around disposable plastics.  The tide has turned, and we’re riding it.  For ordinance language, click here.

Abigail McCarthy, Seattle Surfrider Foundation Chapter.

BAG FEE VS. TAX: MORE INDUSTRY RHETORIC

(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)

REUSABLE BAG BACTERIA SCARE DEBUNKED.

You’ve got to give the American Chemistry Council some credit, they sure know how to whip up a frenzy in the media.  What the problem is, is that most of the media, even your beloved green blog, doesn’t actually do homework anymore.  Who can blame them?  Who has the time to actually sift through the studies the ACC funds to look at what the actual findings mean?  Well, the ACC does their homework, they have an annual budget of $124 million, at least.  And they write press releases that scare the living hell out of the public by cherry picking data that suits their cause, which is to ensure the bottom line of the industries they represent. I won’t mince words, this is just plain evil.

Here’s the skinny:  The American Chemistry Council funded a study (through the Progressive Bag Affiliates) on bacteria growth in reusable bags. They then took the results (which aren’t scary at all, which I’ll explain later) and sent out press releases to news organizations that dutifully reproduced the findings of the PRESS RELEASE without being fact checked or interpreted.  Even the Washington Post wrote up a little piece about it, entitled, Reusable Bags Found To Be Full Of Bacteria. But had they actually considered the report, indeed conducted an investigative analysis of it, they’d have entitled the story, ‘The Reusable Bag Scare Is Much Ado About Nothing, In A Cynical Ploy To Scare The Well Intentioned Citizen By Knowingly, And Shamelessly Hoodwinking Them.”

But rather than beat on the media, let’s get to the facts.  The study authored by University of Arizona researcher Charles Gerba et al, which you can read here, found that Heterotrophic Plate Count Bacteria (HPC) was found in all the used reusable bags except one.  SCARY!  YOU’RE GONNA DIE!!!! POUR BLEACH ALL OVER YOURSELF!!!! But here’s the thing— bacterial presence isn’t necessarily a BAD thing. Bacteria becomes bad when one species of bacteria takes over and kills all the other bacteria that’s keeping it in check. What goes on everyday on your eyelids, hands, in your mouth, your stomach, your blood is an epic standoff of bacteria playing out a physiological ‘checks and balances.’ HPC bacteria is, “a nonspecific term for the growth of viable, naturally occurring bacteria in water,” and researchers believe that HPC is actually a good thing in stuff like drinking water:  There even appears to be a consensus among experts that high concentrations of HPC bacteria will inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria, although this may not be the case with pathogenic viruses. So, expanding on this school of thought, it’s possible to conclude that from a microbiological perspective, it may be safer to actually encourage the growth of HPC bacteria in drinking water supplies.” What’s next? Is Coca-Cola going to fund a study that shows that tap water has high levels of bacteria and we should all be drinking Dasani?

Sorry, I digress, I’ll stick to to sticking it to the ACC. As the ACC would have you (YOU, THE STUPID CONSUMER THAT THEY THINK YOU ARE) believe, bacterial presence in anything means, YOU’RE GOING TO DIE IF YOU BAN PLASTIC BAGS.  But what’s a Washington Post journalist to do when he or she reads this from the report, “HPC bacteria ranged from 45 to greater than 800,000 per bag. Only one bag was negative for HPC bacteria.” Here’s what I’d suggest, call a damn biologist for god’s sake for a five minute conversation and let her set you straight. To any normal person without a biology degree, he or she would interpret this statement as, ‘very high counts of bacteria in reusable bags.’ But here’s the rub, as biology tells us, it’s not harmful and actually, it can be beneficial.  The study also concluded, from their whopping sample size of 84 bags (seriously, 84bags!!!!!!!!  Now, that’s some serious science going on boys and girls) that 12% of the bags sampled had E. coli. Well, surely, that’s GOT TO BE BAD! RUN FOR THE HILLS!  But again, the devil (The ACC, in this case) is in the details– NONE OF THE STRAINS OF E. COLI PRESENT ARE THE KINDS OF E. COLI THAT CAN HARM YOU.  Coliform bacteria are myriad in everything, everywhere.  But the kind found in these bags, yup, totally innocuos. But what about the bacteria that does make you sick?  The study attempted to find Salmonella and Listeria, but guess what?  They didn’t find it!!!!  Now, when the researchers artificially added meat juice to a bag and let sit for awhile, guess what happened?  HARMFUL BACTERIA GREW. Are you freaking kidding me?  What scientist on this planet needs to test whether meat juice if left unchecked on any surface or material would grow bacteria?  I’m going to scream!

Here’s my favorite quote on this whole debate, speaking about harmless strains of E. coli and other bacteria levels found in the Gerba study— From a Consumer Reports Researcher: “A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study,” says Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union.

Here’s the take-away:  you have enough sense to wash your underwear, right?  Apply that sense to everything in your life and you’ll be just fine.

Stiv Wilson

Portland Surfrider Foundation Chapter

It’s Not Just About The Bag: Say ‘No Straw’ Please.

Data provided by leading plastic straw distributors suggest that more than 500 million plastic straws are used daily in the United States. Most plastic straws are used by the fast food industry and, in fact, it is estimated that McDonalds alone uses at least 60 million plastic straws daily (worldwide). Furthermore, plastic straws have become an integral, but not essential, part of the coffee and drinking culture in America.

Based on these facts, it is not surprising that data collected by the Ocean Conservancy during the Annual International Beach Cleanup Day found that plastic straws are one of the top 10 items picked up at beach cleanups worldwide.

The basic principle of the drinking straw dates back to the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia (a region that included now modern-day Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran) between 3000 – 5000 BC. Straws at this time were made of natural materials, like hollow stems of grass, and used to drink beer. The straw has also been prominent in South American countries since at least the 16th century when mate was discovered.

The modern day drinking straw was invented on January 3, 1888 by the American businessman Marvin Chester Stone, the owner of a factory that packaged cigarettes. Stone’s original drinking straw was paper and 8.5-inches long with a diameter just wide enough to prevent lemon seeds from being lodged in the straw. Stone’s cigarette factory began producing paper straws in 1906 when the paper straw machine was invented.

The flexible paper straw, a slight but important modification that increased popularity, was invented by American Joseph B. Friedman in 1938. Friedman first invented the flexible straw concept while watching his daughter attempt to drink a soda with a non-flexible straw in a San Francisco candy shop. The flexible straw was first marketed to hospitals and in high demand by 1947.

Paper straws were replaced with plastic in the 1960s when plastic became the cheapest and most durable material on the market. McDonalds led this effort by developing a new extra wide plastic drinking straw that quickly became a well-known luxury. Plastic straws were strong, reliable, never soggy and hip. The concept took off quickly and now plastic straws are available at prices that are not comparable to many of the alternatives.

Efforts are underway to reduce plastic straw consumption on international, national and local levels. A team of Vietnam pop stars, including My Tam, Doan Trang, Ha Okio, Pi Band,  Phan Anh, and Nguyen Khang, along with Tung Leo (MCs) and My Linh (TV host) have collaborated with 350.org in a Strawless Campaign to encourage the public to reduce and eliminate plastic straws from their lives.

A 9-year old New England boy started a straw-free campaign in his hometown elementary school that has gained national recognition and lead to the establishment of the Be Straw Free Organization. Be Straw Free promotes alternatives to plastic straws and encourages people to go strawless.

SF Surfrider volunteers have started an underground straw-free movement that encourages restaurant-goers, bar hoppers and coffee drinkers to ask for “no straw, please.” Some local progressive bars and coffee shops are ahead of the movement and already serving paper straws or compostable straws. The plan is to promote plastic strawfree establishments and get others onboard. We hate plastic straws here in San Francisco.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Economics and Straw Alternatives…

Carolynn Box

SF 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



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