“THANK YOU.” For years, these infamous words have been seen all too frequently on the plastic bags found floating around pasture lands, city streets, beaches and in the ocean. The elusive plastic bag continues to be at the core of the ocean trash dialogue and California legislators will once again try to pass a statewide ban this year that would prohibit its distribution in the state–cleaner beaches and cityscapes being the primary justification. Last year, the attempt failed to pass by only a handful of votes.
People around the world are all too familiar with these items; volunteers for Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup have picked up more than 10 million plastic bags off beaches and other landscapes over the past three decades. In 2012 alone, the number was 1,019,902 to be precise. We know because we work with volunteers to count every last one. Ten million bags require more than 1,200 barrels of oil to produce. And once in the environment, a diverse array of animals, both in the ocean and on land, ingest these items with detrimental impacts on their health as a result.
Don’t get me wrong. Plastics are a remarkable material. They protect valuable products in transit, save thousands of lives in hospitals and provide safe access to food and water following natural disasters. But not all plastics are created equal. There are some applications–like plastic bags–where we must acknowledge that the negative impacts of their use far outweigh any benefits we accrue during their momentary use.
For those products for which suitable alternatives exist, they no longer need to be a part of our daily lives. Disposable grocery bags are one of them. And while some claim that bag alternatives are only “supposedly” reusable, I can personally attest to the durability of the “free” reusable bags I’ve been using for five years.
To meaningfully reduce the global input of plastic waste into the ocean each year, we need a much broader, more systemic approach than bans on single products. But to reiterate the words of state Sen. Alex Padilla, “We lived for thousands of years without single-use plastic bags. I think we will be just fine without them.”
I commend California and the many nongovernmental organizations that have worked tirelessly to eliminate a repeat offender on Ocean Conservancy’s Top 10 list. Their efforts mark an important step toward cleaner beaches and a cleaner ocean.
If the people of Bangladesh, Rwanda, Burma and the Ivory Coast can all survive without plastic bags, I’m confident Californians can as well.