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Ban Not Yet In The Bag

Santa Cruz and other coastal cities move cautiously on banning single-use plastic bags.

By Traci Hukill

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE that Rwanda, a nation nearly destroyed by civil war 15 years ago, has it over Santa Cruz in the eco-conscious department, but there it is: it and 18 other developing nations have banned plastic bags. We haven't.

At least not yet. Last Friday mayors and councilmembers from 13 coastal California cities gathered at West Marine in Watsonville for a closed-door session on how to eradicate polystyrene containers and single-use plastic bags. A half-dozen marine protection NGOs and prominent business leaders--including Walter Rob, co-president of the Whole Foods chain--chimed in. U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, Assemblyman Bill Monning and former Assemblyman John Laird lent their clout to the proceedings.

After polystyrene, plastic bags are the next target for many coastal communities. The flimsy sacks we take groceries home in--552 of them each year if you're a Californian--don't degrade, they just break up into tiny pieces. They get in the waterways and choke marine life. They may be changing the ocean's chemistry. All good reasons, one might think, to ban them outright.

The resulting resolution from the summit, though, is mildly worded, pledging the signatories to "work together and in our communities reduce and eliminate polystyrene and single-use plastic bags." Pacific Grove Mayor and summit organizer Dan Cort, who sits on a key council of the nonprofit Oceana, explained why the cities are moving cautiously (for one thing, the event was closed to reporters).

"The industry is so rough," he said, referring to the plastic bag manufacturers. "They're suing Palo Alto, Manhattan Beach. I'm not afraid of a battle," he added. "I'm afraid of 10 million plastic bags in the ocean."

Monning says the industry senses a threat and is gearing up for a battle royal. "The American Chemistry Council has a $10 million campaign--'Plastics Are Cool'--targeting kids," he says. "Because today it's plastic bags and Styrofoam. Tomorrow it's all the plastic packaging."

The war is already on. Last year the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition--not a joke--sued Manhattan Beach over its implementation of a plastic bag ban on grounds that the city hadn't done an Environmental Impact Report on the increased use of paper bags (again, not a joke). The news hit the Santa Monica City Council just as it was readying a draft ban of its own, says Santa Monica Mayor Ken Genser. "Our attorney said, 'Let's just do [the EIR],' and we decided to work with a consortium of cities creating a Master Environmental Assessment," says Genser.

That process, which involved eight cities--Palo Alto, San Clemente, Richmond, Manhattan Beach, Pasadena, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Monica--came temporarily to a halt when the state governmental body preparing the assessment lost its funding in the California budget bloodbath. Some of the mayors at Friday's summit are planning to join the coalition in the hopes that having a master report available to all California cities will forestall CEQA-related lawsuits by the industry.

A number of lively discussions reportedly peppered the day--whether biodegradable plastic is acceptable, what to do with dog poop--but one thing attendees seemed to agree on is that the environmental effects of plastic pollution are far-reaching. "We need to link the environmental debate to the health care debate," said Monning. "We can have a public option, but if asthma rates are spiking because of all the stuff in the air."

Jim Ayers, vice-president of Oceana, put the debate in a larger context. Switching to paper isn't enough, he said. Recycling isn't enough. Even carrying a canvas bag isn't enough.

"We need to change as people. And this is the debate," he says. "We want people to tell us that we can keep doing what we're doing and have it be OK. That's a lie. We can't keep consuming the way we're consuming and leave behind a world that's habitable.

"Recycling is a good idea, but the answer is to consume less and reuse. People have to change more rapidly than they want to."

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