Cost Per Plastic Bag To Cleanup: LA Case Study.

Today, I was tagged in a tweet from a fellow ocean lover mentioning Los Angeles’s latest effort to stop trash in the watershed from getting to the ocean. The story, which appears in The Los Angeles Times made my head spin a bit.  It details the problem of Southern California’s litter entering the ocean through drainages and how massive that outflow actually is.  Never mind the incredible amount of trash we’re talking about making its way to the sea, I’m more interested in the costs of preventing it from happening.  These costs are the real doozy. According the article, 16 different cities in Southern California hope is to install mesh screens and such to stop 840,000 pounds of garbage entering the ocean each year. How much does this cost?  A cool 10 million dollars in stimulus money—  now, let’s call the stimulus money tax revenue— (but we know it’s probably borrowed, so we, as taxpayers are paying interest on that amount, too)—  that is, to put it very simply, money that you and I pay to government for public works projects.

But what does this mean?

Let’s start breaking these numbers down into something meaningful:

$10,000,000 divided by 840,000 = $11.90 per one pound of trash to clean out of or prevent from going into a given watershed. Let’s call it $12/a pound for sake of argument.

A plastic bag weighs anywhere from 8 to 60 grams depending on its construction. As an exercise, let’s break this down further.  Again, for the sake of the argument (where we give the plastic bag itself the benefit of the doubt) we’ll keep our estimation of the plastic bag’s weight at the very low end of the scale, eight grams.  There are roughly 453 grams in a pound.  So, if we divide 453 grams by 8 grams (which represents the weight of one plastic bag) we get roughly 57 plastic bags per pound. So now, breaking this down even further, we’ll represent $12.00 as 1,200 pennies.  If it costs us 1,200 pennies to prevent or clean out one pound of garbage, and that garbage is plastic bags, it means per weight that plastic bags cost a significant amount of money to recover per bag.  Dividing 1,200 pennies by 57 (the amount of plastic bags in one pound of garbage) we get a whopping 21 cents per bag of taxpayer money!  Holy Moly!

Granted, there is certainly going to be other plastic and styrofoam products caught, but the intent here, clearly, is to prevent synthetics from entering the sea, not organic material such as wood and plants (or paper bags for that matter). What’s at the crux of this is simple: we’re paying, you and me, to clean up a mess that burdens the commons, made by companies that are not required by law to mitigate their impacts on the environment or our pocket books. That’s not right.

Stiv Wilson, Portland Chapter

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