By Molly Bowman-Styles
California’s plastic bag ban is in jeopardy. We can save it together, but we must act now.
The plastics industry is exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to rescind plastic bag bans in states and cities across the country. Within days of President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, plastics industry lobbyists and their legislative allies launched a national campaign calling for the rollback of laws prohibiting single-use plastic bags.
Fingering unwashed reusable shopping bags as a breeding ground for the coronavirus, the Plastics Industry Association asked the federal government to issue a public statement promoting the “health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics” and “speaking out against bans on these products as a public safety risk.”
In a March 18 letter to Health and Human Services Director Alex Azar, PIA President Tony Radoszewski touted single-use plastics as “the most sanitary choice.” Two weeks later, a report published in the journal The Lancet Microbe punctured his claim. The study examined how long the COVID-19 virus can live on common surfaces, including paper, cardboard, cloth, stainless steel, glass and plastic. Its findings are eye-opening: paper, 3 hours; cloth, 2 days; and plastic, 3 days.
Scientific facts haven’t stopped the reversal of plastic bag bans across the country. Gov. Janet Mills pulled the plug on Maine’s ban a week before implementing social-distancing rules. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered 19 municipalities with restrictions on single use bags to overturn those laws. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu banned reusable bags from stores.
Out West, Oregon suspended its newly-minted plastic bag ban, while elected officials from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, rolled back municipal laws outlawing single-use plastic bags.
Here at home, San Diegans can’t bring their personal reusable bags into some grocery stores and markets. Shoppers, finally accustomed to toting reusable bags on their shopping trips, are now offered plastic bags as a default alternative.
In three short weeks, reusable shopping bags, a consumer staple of nurturing environmental stewardship and public health, have lost important traction. If this trend continues, the consequences will be devastating and disheartening.
Plastic bags are environmental hazards. Made of polyethylene — a derivative of petroleum and natural gas — plastic bags don’t biodegrade. A single plastic bag can take between 400 and 1,000 years to break down in the environment.
Nearly 90% of ocean debris is plastic. It’s choking ocean habitats and killing countless sea turtles and other marine life. Plastic bags accumulate persistent organic pollutants, like PCBs and DDT, at high concentrations. These toxic pollutants are harmful to humans, animals and natural ecosystems.
Shoppers, concerned about plastic’s harmful environmental impact, can request paper grocery bags. These sturdy throwbacks are reusable and a breeze to fold and store away. Best of all, paper shopping bags can be tossed into recycling bins once they’ve run their course.
Yet, there’s a downside to promoting paper grocery bags during the coronavirus pandemic: the 10-cent fee imposed on each bag when Californians approved the nation’s first state-wide, single-use plastics ban.
At a time of great economic hardship, it’s unreasonable to expect Californians to shoulder the cost of paper grocery bags. Doing so could force a showdown between people and the environment, a conflict ripe for exploitation by powerful special interests.
The good news is there’s something Californians can do to stop the Golden State from reverting to a harmful dependency on single-use plastic bags: Ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to lift the 10-cent paper-bag fee until California has pulled through the coronavirus economic crisis.
This time of dark uncertainty is a pivotal moment to take stock of the progress Californians have achieved to live more sustainably. Together, we can save California’s ban on plastic bags and continue building on its legacy for generations to come.
A second-generation San Diegan, Molly Bowman-Styles is the President of Windansea Communications.
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