By Shannon Liang
Environmentalists and marine life have a reason to rejoice! During the November election, more than half of Californians voted YES to a state-wide plastic bag ban, choosing to put an end to the 15 billion single-use plastic bags that are given out to California consumers and the 24 billion that end up in landfills every year. Grocery, convenience, and liquor stores will no longer provide plastic bags, and retailers will charge at least 10 cents to provide consumers any paper or reusable alternative.
This is a huge win for the environment. According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic bags are the #2 deadliest threat to sea turtles, birds, and other marine life. In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments, including grocery bags, are carried into the Pacific Ocean on a daily basis, polluting about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces in their swirling masses. As plastic bags are not biodegradable, they merely break down into smaller pieces and are then consumed by marine life that mistakes the pieces as food. In particular, sea turtles are noted to think that plastic bags are jellyfish, which leads them into eating the plastic bags and starving to death as the material clogs their stomachs. This problem is so severe that half of the world’s sea turtles have been found to have ingested plastic.
Plastic bags also make up a huge part of the litter found in California’s waterways, storm drains, and recycling equipment. According to the City of San Jose, situated in the heart of the Bay Area, only 4 percent of plastic bags are recycled, while the rest end up in the landfill or become litter, the latter washing down into storm drains. Over $400 million in local government spending and taxpayer money is used on cleaning up litter to prevent it from reaching waterways, though some reach California’s inland and coastal waters nonetheless. In addition, plastic-bag repairs in recycling facilities pile up to an annual loss of $1 million each year, as plastic bags interfere with screens and other expensive pieces of equipment.
While California became the first state to place a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2014, only 150 cities had complied and encouraged consumers to bring their own reusable bags; two-thirds of Californians were still living in cities where plastic bags were provided in stores. However, by supporting Proposition 67, 52 percent Californian voters have decided to protect their wildlife and coast, as well as to reduce waste management costs and local government spending through a state-wide ban on plastic bags.
As companies begin transitioning into providing reusable bags—Proposition 67 will provide $2 million in state loans to plastic bag companies to help retrain their workers— consumers will remain motivated in carrying them. Time can only tell where this mandatory state-wide ban will take California on the road to sustainability.