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It’s Official! California Is Now the First US State to Ban Plastic Bags

Environmentalists celebrate, but say tackling widespread plastic pollution needs national and global-level action

After an insistent year-long campaign by environmentalists and citizen activists, today Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 270, a bill that prohibits the use of single-use plastic bags in grocery and retail stores throughout California, making it the first state in the nation to institute such a ban.  

plastic waste in the LA RiverPhoto byBill McDonald,Algalita Foundation / Heal The BayPlastic waste at the mouth of the Los Angeles River in Long Beach, CA.

The bill, introduced by state senator Alex Padilla from Los Angeles, goes beyond a simple “bag ban.” Recognizing that removing plastic bags is only one strategy in the battle against wasteful consumption of both renewable and nonrenewable resources, the bill also requires that a surcharge of at least 10 cents be levied on paper bags, compostable bags, and even reusable plastic bags. 

Response from environmental organizations is celebratory – but not jubilant. “It’s clear that there is a growing grassroots movement not just in California but across the country to stop plastic pollution,” says Dianna Cohen, CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC), an Earth Island Institute project.  “Our coalition consists of over 380 NGOs, businesses, and prominent individuals from around the world, all dedicated in their own ways to bringing about a measurable reduction of single-use and disposable plastics — plastic shopping bags, plastic bottles, and straws being the most pervasive.” Cohen is one of many environmental leaders quick to add, however, that the passing of this legislation is “just the tip of the plastic pollution iceberg.”

“This is a global environmental crisis – there is no place on earth remote enough not be touched by plastic pollution,” she says. “Which is why the movement is global — it has to be. This global network is growing, thanks to dozens of organizations, locally, nationally and world-wide.”

Leslie Tamminen, director of the Clean Seas Coalition and part of Seventh Generation Advisors, agrees that stopping the epidemic of plastic waste takes more than bans and laws. It takes “wide and sustainable changes in consumer behavior. Data from the over 121 local plastic bag bans has proven that bans are effective at reducing litter and changing consumer attitudes, and have refuted industry’s claims of apocalyptic impacts on jobs and poor communities. A state plastic bag ban saves taxpayers the huge amount of money spent on litter cleanup, and protects the environment.” But the key, she goes on to say, is education, and organizations like the Clean Seas Coalition and PPC are focusing on exactly that.

There is one more side of the issue that is just as important to Cohen as clean oceans and fiscal responsibility: the risks of plastic toxicity to human health and wellbeing, not to mention that of other living creatures. “Plastic pollution doesn’t just foul landfills, waterways, and ocean currents, the ‘bloodstream’ of our earth. It also contributes to the fouling of our blood streams, and those of animals who ingest it or become entangled in it.”

Scientific reports confirm that toxins from plastic bottles and packaging leach into our bodies, even in utero. “We all carry a toxic body burden. The Environmental Working Group carried out a study in 2004 measuring the levels and types of toxins in the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies born at US hospitals. They found an average of 200 chemicals per child tested. In other words, our babies are being born prepolluted.” We now know these chemicals can affect neurological, endocrinal, and even the physiological development of fetuses.” The link to various kinds of cancers is also being investigated.

So the California bag ban is more than just a way to clean the place up. The legislation responds to growing concern over a complex set of ecological hazards. (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico also have bills that would ban single-use bags pending in their state legislatures)

“The fight against plastic pollution is not just an environmental issue,” says Cohen. “It’s a public health and social justice issue. Every one of us needs to understand these environmental and health risks. And that takes us back to education, as Tamminen said, “on as large scale as possible.”

The signing of the statewide ban today is a huge step in the right direction. “But we have to go beyond local efforts,” Cohen concludes. “This is just the tip of the iceberg, especially as we move away from fossils fuels — since plastic is a petroleum product. That’s why all of us who had a hand in the success of this legislation remain even more committed. We need to keep working at the national and international levels. Given the level of collaboration needed to get this bill signed, we know that we have our work cut out for us. Together we are turning the dial.”

Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor
Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor is a professor of Women's Studies and English at Penn State University. She is active member of and writer for the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which she is pleased to serve as a public ambassador. She lives in central Pennsylvania, a region that's currently under severe duress by the natural gas industry.

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