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What you need to know about plastic bags

LIVE from City Hall

Posted: March 11, 2008 5:30 p.m.
Updated: May 12, 2008 5:01 a.m.
The use of plastic bags is getting a lot of publicity these days.

Although the use of plastic bags might seem convenient for shoppers, there are consequences of using plastic bags. If people knew the true hidden cost of "free" plastic bags, most would probably think twice about choosing them when asked, "Paper or plastic?"

Californians use more than 19 billion plastic grocery and merchandise bags each year. Six billion of these bags are used by Los Angeles County residents, which breaks down to be about 600 bags per person a year. Currently, about 45,000 tons of plastic bags are going into our landfills while only 5 percent are being recycled.

Even though plastic bags are free in the store, residents end up bearing the cost to dispose of the excess bags over the long term. It costs California taxpayers more than $25 million to collect and dispose of all the discarded plastic bags each year. Plastic bags cost cities roughly 17 cents each, which is indirectly paid through trash-collection fees. Presently, Californians are throwing away more than 600 plastic bags every second.

Environmental issues
In addition to the immediate economic impact of plastic bags, there is a spillover effect on the environment, and it is a very destructive one. Many of our oceans, roadways, and rivers are being overrun with plastic bags. Roughly 60-80 percent of all marine debris and 90 percent of floating debris is plastic.
The reason why plastic bags are so harmful and ever-present in our wildlife is because plastic resin polymers are extremely durable. In a landfill, plastic bags take up to 1,000 years to degrade. Plastic bags do not biodegrade - they photo degrade, meaning they break down into smaller pieces of plastic, never going away entirely.

Plastic bags also pose a threat to our oceanic wildlife. Plastic bags look similar to jellyfish and sponges floating in the ocean, which are a main food source for seabirds, marine mammals, fish and sea turtles.
When a plastic bag is swallowed, the bag either chokes the animal or clogs its intestines, causing the animal to die. Animals can also become entangled, which may lead to choking or restricting their growth. More than 1 million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals and countless fish die annually through ingestion of, or entanglement in, marine debris, including plastic bags.

On land it is a similar story for our wildlife. Many cows, goats, and other animals suffer a fate similar to marine animals' when they accidentally ingest plastic bags while scavenging for food.
Plastic bags are an obvious litter concern to our city. The $25 million that California taxpayers spend annually to collect and dispose of plastic bags does not include economic loss, human health expenses, and quality-of-life issues due to plastic-bag litter.

Plastic bags are very lightweight and easily become airborne. This explains why so many bags become easily caught in branches of trees and bushes and spread across our roadways.

Plastic bags create an eyesore in our community. Numerous volunteers and cleanup activities in the community dedicate a significant amount of time to gathering plastic bags. Also, a build-up of plastic bags inhibits the efficiency of storm drain systems by altering the storm water system and preventing a smooth flow of runoff. Monetary resources used to offset the negative impact of plastic bags could be better used elsewhere for positive programs in our city.

AB 2449
In order to address the plastic bag issue, California passed AB 2449, which took effect on July 1, 2007. This bill requires all large supermarkets and retail stores to make available at-store containers for the collection and recycling of plastic carryout bags. They are also required to make reusable bags available for purchase.

This bill may increase the current 5 percent recycling rate of plastic bags in L.A. County; however, it does not establish any benchmarks. AB 2449 also prohibits any local government from placing a fee on plastic bags or making any resolutions, regulations, or rules concerning a store's plastic-bag recycling program.

What Can Be Done?
Reusable bags are an excellent option for our city. Generally, these bags are made from recycled material and can carry more items and weight than plastic bags. They are lightweight, durable, and can be washed over and over again. Reusable bags are easily accessible, as they are for sale at major supermarkets, and can be purchased from numerous retail and online stores. Whole Foods and Ralphs both give customers .05 cents back for each reusable bag used.

In January, Whole Foods Market announced a goal of ending its use of disposable plastic grocery bags by Earth Day, April 22. This mandate will be implemented in all 270 of the chain's stores throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The goal is to limit single-use plastic bags and encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags.

Reusable bags do not generate hidden costs like paper and plastic bags do. There is a one-time-only direct cost for a reusable bag and it will last for years. They do not require any cleanup efforts, since there will not be a litter issue with reusable bags.

No land animals or marine wildlife are threatened by reusable bags.

Our storm water drains and streets will become cleaner.

Over the next few years, it is probable that you will see an increase in the use and promotion of reusable bags in stores, and we encourage you to jump on this bandwagon!

For more information regarding reducing, reusing and recycling in the city of Santa Clarita, log on to: cmo/environment.

Marsha McLean is a Santa Clarita City Council member. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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