By Caitlin Bell
On December 16, the City of San Jose passed a landmark ban on plastic bags in retail stores, making it the largest U.S. city to implement a bag ban. The ban is one of the strictest in the country, and follows in the footsteps of other cities in California that have instituted a ban, including San Francisco, Palo Alto, Long Beach, and Malibu. Starting on January 1, 2012, plastic bags will be allowed only in restaurants, and retail stores will charge 10 cents for paper bag.
The ban is heralded by many as a step towards conserving the integrity of the California coastline. More than 3.8 billion single-use plastic bags are used in the Bay Area each year alone. The majority end up in landfills, or worse, in the ocean. It is estimated that more than 1 million bags end up in the bay every year.
Opponents of the bag ban consist mainly of companies that manufacture the bags, including the American Chemistry Council, which represents petroleum companies such as Exxon Mobil. The main argument against the ban is that bags can be recycled, but less than 5% of bags used in California are recycled. In addition, plastics are unable to be truly recycled. Instead of creating new plastic bags out of old plastic bags, the way old glass bottles become new glass bottles, plastic bags can only be made into less-complex plastic items like composite lumber.
Thin bags shred easily in the environment, but the small plastic particles remain in the ecosystem for over a thousand years. Even the smallest of particles can be ingested by marine animals that mistake them for prey, and larger pieces can entangle fish, birds, and marine mammals. One of the species most affected by plastic bag debris is the leatherback sea turtle, which mistakes the bags for the jellyfish that comprise a large part of its diet.
Other locations in California are considering plastic bag bans in the future, including Sunnyvale, Fremont, and Marin and Santa Clara Counties. However, you can begin reducing your plastic footprint today by following the following recommendations:
- Bring your own canvas bags to the grocery store. Consider, also, that produce items don’t need that extra bag — bring smaller bags for your vegetables. Opt for items packaged in glass or cardboard, and avoid single-serve items with overzealous packaging.
- Don’t buy bottled water. Instead, purchase a reusable water filter and use a stainless steel water bottle. You’ll save money in the process.
- Instead of buying new plastic containers to store leftovers, re-use glass jars and containers that were unavoidable purchases — pickle jars and sour cream containers are the perfect size for your lunch.
- Line your garbage cans with newspaper. Dumping the contents of your kitchen wastebasket into your curbside bin isn’t much harder than bringing the garbage out in a bag. And this method prevents ripped bags from spilling their contents across your living room on the way outside.
- Buy shampoo and body wash in bulk, and refill the containers when they’re empty. Many supermarkets and specialty stores, especially in the Bay Area, offer this service. Consider using bar soap instead of body wash to avoid excess plastic packaging.
The plastic bag ban will hopefully reduce the number of plastic bags that reach our bay and ocean, and make people consider their harmful effects on the environment. However, you don’t need to wait until your city passes a law to begin revamping your consumption of plastic. Jump on the “ban-wagon” now!
Photo credits: Guardian News, The Daily Green.