Bag Lag

news_2seabagThe Central Coast Sanctuary Alliance pressures local government to adopt a single-use plastic bag ban
Nature photographer Terry McCormac recently had a typical day photographing a mother and baby sea otter near Moss Landing take a turn for the worse when the playful otter pup found itself trapped inside a plastic shopping bag.

“The baby got all panicky and started screaming,” McCormac remembers. “Then the mom started screaming. The mom went over there and got [the baby] on its chest and was trying to pull it off. Neither of them knew what to do. It was very heart wrenching.”

Helpless, McCormac continued to snap photos. The distressed mother and baby disappeared behind a boat, and then reappeared without the plastic bag. McCormac was relieved the otter pup’s misadventure had a happy ending, but he was determined to use the photo to help fight against plastic bag pollution in the ocean.

“Single-use plastic bags or take-out bags are an incredible and well-documented hazard to the health of many sea creatures—mammals, fish, and seabirds, especially, because in the marine environment they look like floating food to many species,” confirms Jim Littlefield, co-vice chair of the Santa Cruz chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

Protecting endangered species from ocean-borne plastic bags is just one of many reasons 26 local environmental organizations, including Surfrider, have banded together to promote a county-wide ban on single-use plastic bags. Together, the groups form the Central Coast Sanctuary Alliance.

Lauren Gilligan, program coordinator at Save Our Shores, was unsurprised to receive Cormac’s photograph of the mother otter cradling her plastic wrapped pup.

“Since 2007, [Save Our Shores volunteers have] removed over 25,000 single use plastic bags from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties,” says Gilligan. “It’s definitely a huge problem.”

Plastic is considered harmful to the environment because it photodegrades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces in sunlight and becoming part of the food chain, but never truly disappearing.

In a town hall style meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 26, representatives from the Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works and Central Coast Sanctuary Alliance shared a proposal to ban single use plastic bags in Santa Cruz County. The meeting was designed to give the public input on the proposed ordinance before it is to be voted on by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, most likely in March or April. The single-use plastic bag ban would affect the unincorporated areas of Santa Cruz County. Similar regulations are being reviewed by the cities of Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley, Watsonville and Capitola.

At the meeting, concerns voiced by the public ranged from how the ordinance would affect gift shop owners to the effects an increase in paper bag production might have on marine life.

For a place with a reputation for environmental activism, Santa Cruz County is lagging behind a national and international movement to ban single-use plastic bags.

San Francisco, San Jose, Marin County and most recently Santa Monica have all banned single-use plastic bags. Each city is also charging a small fee for paper bags to encourage consumers to use reusable bags. These California cities are joining an international trend that includes parts of Europe, Africa and Australia. Travelers to Tanzania beware—getting caught with a single-use plastic bag could mean a six month jail sentence or a stiff $2,000 fine.

In Santa Cruz County, local grocery stores are taking matters into their own hands and leading by example. Whole Foods, Staff of Life, Shopper’s Corner, Trader Joe’s and New Leaf Community Markets stock only paper bags and offer incentives to customers who bring their own bags. Since 1993, New Leaf has been encouraging customers to bring their own reusable shopping bags through their Envirotoken Program.

“Our goal is to not give out bags at all and encourage reusable bags,” says Sarah Owens, marketing director for New Leaf. “Through our Envirotoken program, we’ve definitely saved a ton of trees and donated a lot of money to local nonprofits working for the environment.”

The paper versus plastic debate has been raging for decades. Single-use plastic bags were originally introduced in the 1970s as an environmentally friendly alternative to paper bags, which consume trees, energy, and produce toxic effluent. Although both paper and plastic bags are recyclable, only 5 to 10 percent of plastic bags are recycled in California, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The bags are notorious for clogging recycling machines.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents 80 percent of U.S. companies that make plastic bags, is the major obstacle standing in the way of U.S. cities that attempt to ban single-use plastic bags. The American Chemistry Council has sued several California cities, including Oakland and San Jose, on the basis that these cities did not prepare Environmental Impact Reviews before enacting a plastic bag ban.

In Santa Cruz County, an Environmental Impact Review is already under way.

“The intent isn’t just to prevent us from being sued,’’ said Tim Goncharoff, a planner for the Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works. “It’s to analyze what the environmental impacts might be for better or for worse, and to address them.”

The proposed single-use plastic bag ban in Santa Cruz County will also include a $.10 fee on paper bags, which will eventually rise to $.25, to discourage use of paper bags and encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags. Retailers will keep all of the profits from the paper bag fee. 

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