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Daniela Contreras, Fall 2015

Proposed ban on plastic bags in San Diego spurs action from supporters and opponents

It’s not uncommon to see them dancing in the wind, brushing the roads, the sand on the beach or sidewalks. Consumers fill shopping carts with them and use them to transport and dispose household trash, containing anything from forgotten leftovers to cat litter.

As of late, they have also been a source of contention among politicians, environmentalists and businesses in California. Currently, the cities of Encinitas and Solana Beach have been the only ones to ban plastic bags in San Diego County. Along with the ban, both cities have enforced 10-cent fees on paper bags. 

 Customers will only see paper bags like in this supermarket in Cardiff, CA.

Customers will only see paper bags like in this supermarket in Cardiff, CA.

The Equinox Center, an independent San Diego research foundationreleased an executive report on the impact on plastic bag bans. The report found that among the biggest problems with plastic bags are:

  • their presence in waste streams
  • the high costs of litter clean up
  • the lack of curbside recycling to discard them
  • and limited landfill space

The report also takes into consideration the local economy by analyzing and estimating possible consequences on retailers, consumers, cities and plastics manufacturers. The report states that in the long term, local economies would not be affected negatively by a plastic bag ban.

Due to the effects of plastic bags on the environment, city, county and state leaders have proposed a state-wide ban on plastic bags, Senate Bill 270The bill will appear on the November 2016 ballot.

Initially, lawmakers passed the ban and planned to enforce it in July 2015. But opponents of the ban, including small businesses and plastic bag alliances successfully delayed the ban. A ballot measure to repeal the bill in February pushed back the date for voters to decide the future of plastic bags. According to a report issued in 2013 and then presented to the San Diego City Council, main opposition to other California bag ban ordinances have come from plastic bag manufacturers and plastic bag trade associations.

The report also estimates that 500 million bags are distributed annually in San Diego and approximately 3 percent of them are recycled. The cost of cleaning up plastic bag litter totals around $160,000 per year.

In addition to a heavy concern for water conservation due to the statewide drought, the issue of plastic bags has opened the door to a renewed consciousness of the San Diego environment.

SLIDESHOW: Michelle Levesque, park ranger, who works at the San Elijo lagoon explains the effects of plastic and trash on the lagoon and its relationship to the San Diego beaches.


Ban opposition


Jennifer Ott, environmental specialist for the city of San Diego, says the difference between San Diego’s and Los Angeles’ efforts concerning plastic bags is the fact that L.A. has the ordinances already set in place while San Diego doesn’t.

Local and smaller businesses aren’t keen on making the switch from plastic to paper bags because of the extra cost it takes to make them, says environmental specialist Jennifer Ott. 

Ott’s research for the city of San Diego shows that most chain grocery stores have been compliant with recent ban ordinances. Smaller businesses and neighborhood markets, however, represent most of the opposition.

Restaurants find themselves in a different predicament compared to other retail stores, Ott says. Since some argue that reusable bags may host certain bacteria not found in plastic bags, placing food in these bags may be a liability. In other words, not providing plastic bags is riskier for restaurants than not providing them.

Even though plastic bags have detrimental effects on the environment and wildlife because they don’t degrade, Ott says they only represent around five to 10 percent of the total waste stream. Construction and demolition debris make for a higher amount of waste due to its weight.

For Ott, it is motivating to see how Los Angeles has passed plastic bag ordinances and implemented them. A goal for her as part of the city’s Waste Reduction and Disposal Division is to put more reusable bags in more hands and to find alternatives to plastic bags. Reducing the use of plastic is the top priority and recycling plastic bags in particular, is a last resort.

The city and county of San Francisco, for example, extended the plastic bag ban to include all retail stores and food establishments in 2013.

While Ott says no studies have been conducted on the effects of plastic bag bans in Los Angeles, 13 incorporated cities in the county of Los Angeles have already adopted ordinances similar to those in Solana Beach and Encinitas.

“They have ordinances, we don’t,” Ott said referring to the bans in Los Angeles.


Forming opinions

Now that this issue has been politicized, consumers are starting to live the consequences of legislative decisions.

Elizabeth Fimbres, 59, is a San Diego City resident who hasn’t completely made up her mind about the matter.

“On one hand, you have people who strongly advocate for the environment. On the other hand, you have people who stand for convenience and ease,” Fimbres said. 

For Fimbres, paying for paper bags or remembering to bring a reusable bag when grocery shopping can be problematic as time goes by. Regardless, she says she understands the pleas made by environmentalists and doesn’t deny plastic bags’ effects on wildlife.

Fimbres believes San Diego’s reputation as a green-friendly and conscious city depends on future behaviors and political decisions. 

California Vs. Big Plastic is a pro-ban coalition of consumers, labor groups, businesses and citizens opposed to the referendum campaign that led to the overturn of the ban.

The coalition’s website provides a list of local government endorsements among the 17 county supervisors, with Dave Roberts as the only representative from San Diego County who appears on the list as a supporter of the organization.

Among city councilmembers and mayors who also support the organization, are five leaders from San Diego County out of 115 representatives in total. Only five leaders from San Diego County support the organization and represent the cities of Encinitas, San Diego and Solana Beach.

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition’s stance on existing and potential bans, however, is a very different story.

Based in Los Angeles, the coalition believes anti-plastic campaigns are largely based on myths and misinformation. Educating the public and policymakers about the true impacts of plastic, paper and reusable bags on the environment is key. 

Stephen Joseph, founder of the coalition, says that the real problem is the problem of truth.

Some environmentalists’ claims about plastic bags and wildlife are not supported by any evidence, he said, adding that plastic bags aren’t responsible for the death of animals. The true culprit is fishing gear such as fishing nets and lines, but environmentalists who back plastic bag bans don’t seem to know the differences between facts and talking for the sake of talking, Joseph said.

“This is not about plastic bags, it’s about what you believe, “Joseph said.

The main issue the coalition faces according to Joseph is getting the truth out about plastic bags and not resorting to any confirmation bias.


Local expert perspectives


Rob Hutsel at the San Diego River Park Foundation says that the San Diego River’s role must be addressed since plastic bags significantly affect it as well.

In San Diego, there is a lot of focus on the ocean’s well-being, but for Rob Hutsel, executive director at the San Diego River Park Foundation, the waves only lead to one part of the story.

The San Diego River is also contaminated to a considerable degree and Hutsel says plastic bags are partly to blame, especially for their negative effect on local wildlife.

Hutsel says the foundation is focused on getting things done and researching the effects of any given phenomenon to have a stable and informed position on policy. He says that the wildlife found in the San Diego River is affected by the plastic particles that never end up breaking down. Much of the trash, including plastic bags, that ends up in the river water is left behind by homeless people.

“We would be the people picking up the bags,” Hutsel said.

Hutsel considers San Diego progressive in its preservation efforts but enacting change is still no easy feat. In the case of plastic bags, efforts have not yet come together like they have for water conservation or the cleaning up of cigarette butts on the county’s beaches.

Both of these movements, Hutsel says, were supported by millions of dollars in education and marketing, something that has yet to be seen in the case of plastic bags.


“There needs to be a change in culture,” Hutsel said.


Hutsel’s sentiment is shared by Kristin Kuhn, community engagement coordinator at San Diego Coast Keeper. At the beaches, plastic bags don’t pose as much of a problem as other articles of trash because they are mobile, so they blow away.

The real hotspots are the inland areas and canyons, where plastic bags can cover or clog up storm drains as well as negatively affect the local vegetation.


The environmental consequences in numbers

In addition to reducing the use of plastic bags after considering their effects on the environment, the issue of recycling them is also part of the discussion.

In a 2012 article published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, about 6.5 percent of the 33.6 million tons of plastic discarded each year is recycled.  

The rest of the unrecycled plastic ends up in landfills, where the plastic may take hundreds or even a thousand years to decompose.

Bag the Ban, a project launched by the packaging products manufacturer Novolex, defines itself as a response to misguided legislative proposals.

According to the project’s site, through Novolex’s Bag-2-Bag program, 30,000 plastic bags recycling points have been put in place. As a result, around 35 million pounds of plastic bags and other materials are transformed into new bags in Novolex’s recycling facility.

The site also links to an independent survey conducted in Denver, Colo. which found that:

  • 83 percent of individuals prefer educating consumers to reuse bags instead of implementing taxes upon checkout

The report to the San Diego City Council also estimates that 500 million bags are distributed annually in San Diego and approximately 3 percent of them are recycled. The cost of cleaning up plastic bag litter totals around $160,000 per year.

VIDEO: Park Ranger Matt Sanford discusses San Diegans’ change of habits in regards to plastic and trash as well as the role of inland areas and canyons in the local environment.




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