Over the past three years, the nonprofits Save the Mermaids, Surfrider, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and LoaTree have been working to bring the issue of single-use plastic bags in large retail stores before the city council. Thanks to their efforts, and those of countless community members, the plastic bag ban went before the Santa Barbara City Council April 19. I know those community members who have supported us in the past will continue to do so, for they have already signed petitions, written letters and called their council members. I am not writing this to preach to the choir. My intention now is to create some healthy debate with the members of this community who oppose the bag ban.
I will first try to convince you that a ban on plastic bags is imminently necessary by appealing to your sense of environmental stewardship and humanity. Plastic bags are the blight of our beautiful beach community, the ocean ecosystem and defenseless animals. In an editorial on June 24, 2010 the Los Angeles Times reported that plastic bags are the third most common form of trash found on California beaches. From the beach, these bags make their way into large ocean gyres and accumulate to form something out of a science fiction movie — surreal, submerged landfills called trash gyres.
There are now trash gyres forming in all five of the major ocean basins, which we know little or nothing about. The California Progress Report noted that plastic bags have contributed to the death or injury of 267 species. How many species is it fair to harm for one species’ benefit? Animals provide vital ecosystem functions we depend on for our survival. If they go extinct, we go extinct.
Which brings me to my next point: Even if you are not compelled to ban plastic bags for the health and happiness of 267 animal species, maybe you will be convinced to change for your own good. In 2008, researchers of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation found that 35 percent of all fish in the northern Pacific Ocean have ingested plastic. Some fish have ingested as many as 83 pieces. So now consider what happens when a fish ingests this plastic, assimilating it as part of its body, and then we eat that fish.
Among the chemicals contained in plastic bags that we consume in seafood are lead, cadmium, mercury and the carcinogen diethylhexyl phthalate. Charles Moore, the founder of Algalita, described this phenomenon as “the entire food web being contaminated by plastic.” The long-term effects of this level of plastic pollution in the food chain could lead to global epidemics of cancer and other illnesses if no action is taken and plastic continues to invade our environment.
I know what you’re thinking now: You want to change, you really do, but banning plastic bags is not economically sound. But I am here to reassure you the economy will be fine with a few less plastic bags. It certainly hasn’t ruined the entire country of China, which banned plastic bags in 2008. Try reusing cereal bags, turkey oven bags, Ziplocs, bread bags and bags from retail stores instead of plastic grocery bags. You will realize you do not need that many bags in your life.
When technology, consumer demand or resource availability changes in any industry, competitive companies must adapt and progress to stay relevant, which is the only way to remain economically viable. The plastic-bag makers want our money, so if we ban their product they will have to hire more engineers and scientists and get more creative. In an effort to stay relevant they may develop a whole new material — an alternative to plastic. Maybe they will discover that you can make bags out of trash or old bottles.
Therefore, more jobs are created, not lost; science and human knowledge will advance and fewer plastic bags will be put on Earth to begin their thousand-year life cycle. I don’t claim to have the ability to predict the future, but I know when an industry giant as big as the American Chemistry Council — which represents plastic-bag makers like Exxon Mobil Corporation and Dow Chemical Company — is threatened, it will get creative and there will not be a significant loss of jobs.
Plastic is a great invention. I agree with you on that. I only question the logic in using something that was designed to last forever when you intend to use it only once. I think we should see this bag ban not as a political battle, putting the environment up against economics, but as an opportunity for human progress. I truly believe that we can reconcile the environment and the economy by finding ways to do things that benefit both.
Jackson Browne recently made an album about pollution in which he captured my emotion best: “If I could be anywhere in time and change the outcome, it would have to be now.”
Robin Fisher is a third-year communication major.