SF Chronicle Opinion: Time to Ban Plastic Bags Statewide

As San Franciscans, we care deeply for the environment. Together, we’ve shown the world that hybrid cars, composting, rooftop solar panels and reusable bags work to solve environmental problems. Soon, our first-in-the-nation plastic-bag ban will cover restaurants, and San Francisco will be the biggest U.S. city completely free of plastic carry-out bags. With Los Angeles’ plastic bag ban, a third of Californians will soon be bag free. But until our state legislators follow San Francisco’s example, plastic bags from other cities will continue polluting San Francisco Bay.

It’s time for California to ban single-use plastic bags statewide.

Plastic bags are an environmental blight and a direct threat to wildlife. A Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association study found that plastic shopping bags are 8 percent of the garbage volume washing into our bay.

These bags are one of the four most common garbage items on California beaches, according to Ocean Conservancy. In 2010, volunteers picked up over 65,000 plastic bags during just one statewide cleanup.

Less than 5 percent of these bags are recycled, and too many pollute our beaches, the bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Translucent and bell-shaped, plastic bags are too often mistaken for jellyfish and eaten by sea turtles. Leatherback sea turtles, which swim off our shores as far north as Mendocino County, feed almost exclusively on jellyfish. A recent review of 370 autopsies found that 1 in 3 leatherbacks have plastic in their stomachs. Most often, it’s a plastic bag. Leatherback turtles have died off by 95 percent since the 1980s from a combination of causes.

Birds, fish and at least one baby sea otter found by Save Our Shores are often entangled in plastic bags. Once trapped, the animal can drown, suffocate or be strangled as it outgrows a plastic noose. Nearly 16 percent of all entangled animals found during Ocean Conservancy’s 2010 cleanup were caught in plastic bags. This was the largest impact after fishing line and fishing nets, which entangled 30 percent and 27 percent of recovered animals, respectively. Not a good comparison for plastic bags, a product never designed to capture wildlife.

In a few short years, nearly 80 California cities and counties have banned plastic bags. With Los Angeles’s bag ordinance, nearly 1 in 3 Californians will live somewhere with a plastic bag ban. Banning plastic bags has become the new normal, but too many bags still reach the bay, where they drift out to sea through the Golden Gate.

The most recent attempt to pass a statewide plastic bag ban fell just three votes short in the state Senate, closer than ever before. San Francisco has shown that plastic bag bans work to clean up parks and beaches and protect the bay and our ocean. With a third of the state covered by local bans, California is clearly ready for this change. The Legislature must act. Let’s ban plastic bags statewide.

Supervisors John Avalos and David Campos sponsored San Francisco’s expanded plastic bag ban.

Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle (8/16/2013)