Paper, Plastic, or Neither?

We’ve all been to the grocery store and been asked the question, “Would you like paper or plastic today?” But with so many different bags, what is the right one for our community?

A variety of bags are available to us as consumers—from polyethylene plastic, biodegradable plastic, paper, to reusable.

Plastic bags have been banned in cities all over the world, and the movement continues today. From San Francisco to India, plastic polyethylene bags are being banned at grocery stores and shopping malls.

In 2010, a bill to ban plastic bags in California grocery stores was rejected by a 21 to 14 vote, according to the New York Times. Since this rejection, environmental groups have lobbied for local bans in California, few of which have passed.

All over the country and globe, efforts to diminish use of plastic bags continue to spread. In 2010, Washington, D.C. imposed a five-cent fee on bags given out by stores that sell food, according to NPR. During its first year the bag fee went into effect, D.C. collected an additional $2 million in tax revenue, according to the Washington Post.

In China, the plastic bag ban went into effect in 2008, and so far has saved more than a million barrels of oil and reduced plastic bag usage by 66%, according to CBS.

Likewise, the government of Maharashtra, India banned the manufacture, sale and use of all plastic bags in 2009, because of choked drainage systems, according to the Indian Journal of Science and Technology.

Choked drainage systems are one of many environmental hazards that arise from plastic bag existence. As many as 100,000 marine mammals die each year because of plastic litter in the North Pacific, according to Algalita, a Marine Research Foundation.

Plastic bags are one of the top items of litter on our beaches, roads, sidewalks, and vegetation along with cigarette butts, according to BBC News. Because of their light weight, the bags fly easily in the wind and are likely to float along currents in Photo Credit: Jessica Oliveira rivers and oceans.

Ninety billion bags are distributed annually in the United States, according to the New York Times. Less than one percent of plastic bags are recycled each year and to recycle one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000, according to the Clean Air Council organization.

In San Francisco, the Save the Bay campaign estimated in 2010 that of the 3.8 billion plastic bags used in the Bay Area, about 1 million end up in the San Francisco Bay.

Although each plastic grocery and merchandise bag is composed of only a small amount of plastic, approximately 247 million pounds are disposed annually in California landfills, according to California’s Department of Recourses Recycling and Recovery.

Santa Barbara’s Plastic Bag Debate

In Santa Barbara County, the only city to adopt a plastic bag ban is Carpinteria. The vote this year of the City Council members towards the ban was unanimous.

However, not all public officials support such bans. For example, Michael Bennett of Goleta City Council supports a statewide ban, not a local one.
“I have been a strong supporter of a state wide ban because I think that’s effective,” said Michael Bennett a member of Goleta City Council.

He doesn’t think city bans are effective. “I just don’t think its effective and I think it’s unfair to the community; it doesn’t treat everyone equally and doesn’t spread the impact,” said Bennett who served as Goleta’s mayor in 2008.

A plastic bag ban has never been brought to a vote in Goleta. However, Bennett defends the use of the bags on several scores.

“There is still going to be a need for plastic bags because they are the most sanitary and healthy,” said Bennett. Plastic bags may be the easiest to carry, but they also are sanitary because they prevent spills outside the bag.

Even though these plastic bags are single use, there are other uses for them besides carrying groceries. “I use those bags as liners for the bathroom trash cans, and if I don’t have access to those, then I will buy new bags somewhere that will meet the need,” said Bennett.

While Bennett says that a city ban would be unfair, the Isla Vista Food Cooperative manager has an opposing view.

The IV Food Co-op offers natural and organic food to Isla Vista and neighboring communities in Santa Barbara County. The IV Co-op is the only certified green grocery store Santa Barbara County. The Co-op banned their plastic bags in January of 2011, and began offering a reusable bag program.

Manager and nine-year co-op employee Melissa Cohen made it her first action as manager to ban plastic bags. “I felt like it was easy and a priority, so that was the first thing that happened when I became general manager,” said Cohen.

“We want to talk about all the awesome reusable bags, less with the negative side and more with the positives,” said Cohen. The co-op banned plastic bags without acknowledging their customers ahead of time, but offered a free reusable bag program. “Less people complain if we don’t make a big deal out of it,” said Cohen.

The free reusable bag program offers donated cloth and fabric bags that hang in the store allowing others to borrow and return for next customers. “Almost at all times there are bags on there,” said Cohen.

The IV Co-op is just one of a few stores that have banned plastic bags. Whole Foods is another store that does not carry plastic grocery bags and encourages reusable bags. When shopping at Trader Joes, if you bring your own reusable bag they’ll cut five cents off your bill.

Having incentives for bringing your own bag helps the community to be active in the change. Or making those who need bags pay five cents extra, like in D.C., encourages customers to bring their own bags so they avoid the charge.

“If you’re not very environmentally or food conscious, you are conscious about money. So I think it’s about hitting people where they are going to feel it the most,” said Cohen.

“80% of all shopping takes place by foot, bike or skateboard” in Isla Vista, said Cohen. Students and residences of IV, “need bags more than anybody else… if you’re on foot or riding your bike across IV, you want your stuff to be in a secure way during transport.”

Most students at UCSB are pedestrian oriented, meaning that they don’t use cars as transportation. With so many students being able to change their habits while shopping at local stores who have banned bags, Cohen says that there is no reason why there should be plastic bags in Santa Barbara County.

Susan Kennedy, a resident of Santa Barbara for 54, years doesn’t like the idea of a plastic bag ban for her city of Goleta. Kennedy said that she is environmentally conscious on many levels: she always recycles, only uses LED light bulbs, owns a compost in her garden and has educated her family by reducing shower taking to three times a week.

“I bring reusable bags on a regular basis when I go grocery shopping… I am proud of the precautions I take, but, say one day I forget my reusable bags at home, which is likely to happen to anyone at some given point. Then what are we suppose to do?” said Kennedy.

“I think that instead of trying to get the county to make a bag ban, spend all of this effort into making the community aware of the issue and it’s problems.” Kennedy said that by doing so, Santa Barbara County is more likely to have a better output. “People hate being told what they can and cannot do. So, instead tell them why they shouldn’t do it and teach them to change their habits.”

Reaching Out to the Community

Del Playa Beach, Isla Vista

Del Playa Beach, Isla Vista

As Santa Barbara continues to push for a plastic bag ban, other programs are becoming available to teach the community of the hazards and educate them on alternatives.

“Our main goal is to get plastic bags banned in Santa Barbara,” said Michelle Ta, UCSB student and member of CALPIRG. CALPIRG is an independent statewide student organization that focuses on issues like environmental and consumer protection, hunger, and the homelessness.

“We are always working on making change by getting students and the community to sign petitions and tabling during rush,” she said. The organization’s stand on plastic bags is to switch to paper and then hopefully convert to all reusable bags in the future.

CALPRIG helps the students and faculty become aware of the harms associated with plastic bags by posting pertinent facts and hanging plastic bags around campus. They also give small announcements in lectures to increase students to sign petitions.

“Next week is the council’s petition for the banning of plastic bags in Santa Barbara County. We really hope for it to pass,” said Ta.

Through the At-Store Recycling Program, California has mandated that plastic carryout bag recycling drop-off bins be available at all regulated supermarkets and large retail stores with a pharmacy. “When I go to the grocery stores where they have the plastic bag bins, they are over flowed, which shows that people are turning them back in,” said Bennett.

Santa Barbara’s Save the Bag campaign has encouraged many other stores to remind customers to bring their own reusable bags. Some participating stores include: Albertsons, Cantwells, Foodland, Ralphs, and Vons. Through this campaign, every time a customer brings and uses their own reusable bag at one of the participating stores, a donation of five cents is made to local charities.

Santa Barbara Counties newest program that went into effect last February, Less is More organization, allows residences to recycle plastic bags of all kinds in their curbside blue bin or recycling dumpster. These bags range from dry cleaning bags, sandwich bags, and bubble wrap to grocery and retail bags.

“Santa Barbara’s educational efforts have been superb, go to the grocery store now and you see people with reusable bags all the time; this is because of education, not mandate,” said Bennett. “When people become aware on their own, there’s nothing more powerful, in my opinion, than having people do the right thing.”

With so many options between bags and educational organizations, it is clear how detrimental plastic bags can be to the community and environment. However, with the bags usefulness, cheap costs, and sanitary uses, it is a difficult answer to make as to whether a plastic bag ban should really be enforced in Santa Barbara County.

So which bag will you use today?