The saying goes that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ Sometimes it begins with a single plastic bag.
Back in 2007, I was a forty-something City College student taking classes toward a second career in environmentalism. The idea for a single use bag law began as a group project in a sustainability class. My group worked with City of Santa Barbara staff and council members and presented before the full council on May 15, 2007. At that time San Francisco was the only city in the U.S. with a bag law – Santa Barbara could have been second. Although the council didn’t vote to approve the law, we received some press, and other environmental groups expressed interest in continued pursuit of the law.
Santa Barbara’s bag ban journey
Soon after, I joined the staff at the Community Environmental Council. While a law was still out of reach, the city council approved an education outreach campaign. We teamed up with Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and the City of Santa Barbara’s Environmental Services department to create the “Where’s Your Bag” campaign and distributed more than 10,000 reusable bags at a variety of community events. While it was a great program, CEC and Channelkeeper kept pressing for a law, knowing that we weren’t going to educate our way out of 47 million bags a year.
2011 brought changes to the city council and a renewed interest in a single use bag law. In March of 2012, I was chosen to give a presentation to the city council along with Penny Owens from SB Channelkeeper. We were so nervous! In May of 2012, the law passed unanimously. After five years, that part of the journey was finally over.
The next phase was an Environmental Impact Report – a process that can be lengthy and costly. A partnership with BEACON (Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Oceans and Nourishment) allowed the EIR to be accessed by any BEACON member. This created a regional approach – one document that serves most of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. This approach is cost-effective, efficient and has already spurred unincorporated Santa Barbara County and the City of Ventura to explore bag laws of their own.
The City of Santa Barbara’s single use bag law was adopted in October 2013, with an effective date of May 14, 2014 for large stores and November 14, 2014 for smaller stores.
Bottom line? The City of Santa Barbara will go from 47 million plastic bags a year to fewer than five million.
So what’s the big deal with single use items like plastic bags? Like single-use bottles and food containers, they are energy intensive products – a lot of fossil fuels are used to make and transport them to stores. They are generally used once and tossed; in fact in the U.S., 2.5 million water bottles are disposed of per HOUR. Single use plastics have a very low recycling rate, and there is not a robust recycling market for the small percentage that makes it to a blue bin. Their lightweight composition allows them to escape easily from trash cans. Not only have they become a blight on our landscape in our waterways, their negative effects multiply as they photodegrade into tiny bits that never go away. Our oceans are filling up with these plastic bits, where they attract other chemicals and become toxic ‘pills’ that work their way up the food chain. The disposal side of plastics, like so many other fossil fuel products, is not taken into account when calculating their cost.
A single plastic bag may seem like an innocuous item, but it has become symbolic of our use-and-toss culture. With fossil fuels becoming more challenging and expensive to extract, it’s more important than ever to use them wisely. Ending dependence upon items like plastic bags is a step in the right direction.