Plastic bags plague the Bay


 Have you ever wondered what happens to those pesky plastic bags that blow out of trash cans and float aimlessly along city streets and through neighborhoods?

Eventually, they find their way to storm drains, creeks, bays and oceans.  Once in the water they become toxic food for unsuspecting wildlife or flow to join the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of trash in the North Pacific Ocean, twice the size of Texas, where a recent study found that plastic particles are more abundant than plankton.

Plastic bags are some of the most pervasive, preventable and costly types of marine pollution. In fact, plastic bags were the second most frequent item of litter picked up by volunteers during the Ocean Conservancy's 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day with 1.37 million plastic bags removed from coastal areas worldwide.

That’s why Save The Bay chose to highlight plastic bags in its recent 4th annual list of Bay Trash Hot Spots.  Every year Save The Bay’s much-anticipated Hot Spots generate extensive media coverage.  This year, the largest newspapers in the Bay Area – the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News – covered the story.

The 2009 Hot Spots are ten Bay shorelines and creeks where volunteers removed the most plastic bags on Coastal Cleanup Day in 2008. On this day alone, volunteers picked up nearly 15,000 plastic bags from these ten locations – a shocking number given that only a small portion of the Bay shoreline and its tributaries were cleaned up.  In fact, Save The Bay estimates that more than one million plastic bags wind up in the Bay each year, smothering wetlands, degrading water quality and harming wildlife. 

Californians use approximately 19 billion plastic bags and 5 billion paper bags each year.  But here is the kicker: the average use time of a plastic bag is only 12 minutes!

It's time to really do something about plastic bag litter and pollution. For the past 15 years, California has made a concerted effort to promote plastic bag recycling, but despite this, less than five percent are actually recycled and there is little market for “down-cycled” plastic film.  What's more, recycling firms report extensive costs from trying to recycle plastic bags because they jam processing machines and cause work stoppages.

Public education campaigns and cleanups are great ways to raise awareness about the problem, but to really reduce plastic bag pollution, cities and counties must prioritize legislation that ends the distribution of all "free" single-use plastic and paper bags, prompting consumers to switch en masse to reusable bags. 

Not surprisingly, the multi-billion dollar plastics industry has dispatched lobbyists to California and other states to block efforts to reduce bag use.  Like the tobacco industry, which launched campaigns to stop smoking bans, the plastic bag industry has sued or is threatening to sue cities across the country.    

Even so, this year Washington, D.C. passed a single-use bag fee, despite the bag industry strongly lobbying against it. Just this past spring Palo Alto, CA passed a ban restricting large grocers from distributing single-use plastic bags after settling a lawsuit threat from the plastics industry. And San Jose, CA is on the brink of drafting legislation to ban both plastic and paper bags (with some exceptions). The country is on the verge of a tipping point with more and more cities cracking down on bag pollution.

The good news is that plastic bag pollution is preventable.  We can:

o      Reduce our impact by making the switch to reusable bags and reusing plastic bags around the house.

o      Advocate for policies and regulations that significantly reduce plastic bags flowing to our waterways.

o      Volunteer to clean up and restore shorelines and creeks.     


Amy Alton Ricard is a communications and policy associate with Save the Bay in Oakland, California.