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Single-use bags foul our environment 

A proposed ordinance would ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags

On Jan. 11 at 1:30 p.m. in the Government Center, at 1055 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo, the Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) will take a final vote to decide whether local groceries and other retailers will continue dispensing single-use plastic bags.

There are approximately 9 million residents in California who live in communities that have banned such bags or are working toward a ban: San Francisco, Malibu, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Marin County, and unincorporated Los Angeles County. The movement to ban the bags is growing for obvious, indisputable reasons: inundated landfills, garbage patches in our oceans that are the size of states, plastics fouling our lakes and streams that in turn threaten our creatures at sea and on land. The plastic bags eventually become tiny bits that contaminate the food chain.

Governments are taking action internationally. China, for example, banned the use of plastic bags in 2008, to reduce annual carbon emissions by 9.6 million tons—a win-win. Indeed, SLO County has the immediate opportunity to reduce the contamination in our landfills and to curb toxic emissions as mandated by California AB32. The proposed ordinance is in line with county policy as found in the newly enacted San Luis Obispo County Energy Wise Plan (formerly known as the Climate Action Plan).

In a Sept. 13 ruling, Marin Superior Court Judge Lynn Duryee ruled in favor of the county on Save the Plastic Bag Coalition v. County of Marin. She stated that in jurisdictions with a marine environment, such as Marin, plastic bags are especially damaging to the environment. Plastic bags have no recycling market. It takes 500 years for them to decompose. And they have created a major solid waste issue for Marin. It was therefore a reasonable legislative and regulatory choice for Marin County, after years of study, to ban plastic bags while imposing a fee on paper bags. Such a regulation assures “the maintenance, restoration, enhancement, or protection of the environment.”

Locally, a group called Keep Bags Free SLO is mounting a campaign sponsored by the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council. They got it wrong—bags are not free. The environmental cost of producing these bags is high: It takes 12 million barrels of oil to make a year’s worth of plastic bags, and we pay for their existence virtually forever. The annual cost to U.S. retailers who purchase the bags is estimated at $4 billion. When retailers “give away” bags, that cost is simply passed along to customers. The IWMA of SLO County has an ordinance in front of them that would change the method of grocery-store bag distribution. It would ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags and impose a small fee for paper bags, which each would bear a manufacturer’s designation as a “multiple-use bag.”

The debris data collected during Coastal Clean-up Days (CCD) for the past two years confirm single-use plastic bags are a chronic nuisance to our local waterways. The 2011 CCD data show 26.81 percent of the collected trash was a combination of single-use bags, food containers, soda bottles, plastic utensils, and straws. That included 1,443 plastic bags and 2,982 food wrappers and containers. Such plastic would eventually fragment and enter the food chain. Taking personal responsibility for the health of our shared environment is simple: Reduce/reuse/recycle every product you possibly can, bring your own bag—B.Y.O.B—to the store, refill water bottles, and use the fewest possible plastic products.

How long can we sustain the single-use of products that last virtually forever? Do our representatives have the courage to help us stop? The economic interests who oppose this ordinance do not have our community—our environment, our economy—at heart; merely their own profit.

For more analyses of the costs single-use bags incur, see and read up on “bag math.”

Maria M. Kelly is a San Luis Obispo resident who volunteers for the organization Think Outside the Bag. Send comments via the executive editor at

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