Why We Should Put the Plastic Bag Away Forever

Once, I volunteered a Saturday morning to help clean a park here in Ventura. I do not bring this up to portray myself as a civic-minded do-gooder. I try to do good, but I also prefer to leave my weekends for play. But up I went to this park, for it sits high upon a hill, where I spent the morning trundling sweatily through the bushes getting scratched and gouged, retrieving every type of garbage you can imagine, and some you'd prefer not to imagine.

But one brand of trash ruled. They were everywhere. Sometimes they were whole. More often they were tattered, for many of them had been park residents for a very long time. The elements had not been kind to them, but they had, as they do, persevered through wind and sun and storm. Many of them hung out of reach, but just as many lay motionless and were easily plucked up, although some seemed to possess a will of their own, for there was a breeze blowing and when I bent to pick them up they produced small leaps, forcing me to lurch forward and earn additional scratches. I had volunteered to help a youth group and some of the children learned new vocabulary words that day.

Our group labored for most of the morning with a great deal of success. We picked up most of the soggy cardboard slabs and rusted beer cans and more cigarette butts than a Greenwich Village poetry convention could produce. But when we finally called it quits for drinks and snacks (another reason I volunteered), one brand of trash remained, undefeated. When the wind rose it made a tremendous whopping. I closed my eyes, for I am the master of escapism, and thought of sails carrying a breeze, but when I opened my eyes and looked above the heads of the playing children it looked more like an apocalyptic snowfall.

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Money may not grow on trees, but plastic bags do and not just in our park on the hill. According to Californians Against Waste, we used 13 billion plastic bags in 2011, at the rate of roughly 400 bags a second. I'd like to use more recent figures, but my guess is the folks at Californians Against Waste are still diligently counting. And virtually all those bags we used were immediately discarded (CAW claims that of the 13 billion plastic bags distributed annually in California, only 3% are recycled).

None of us need to see a statistical report to know where these bags end up, which is pretty much everywhere; pulsing along the roadside, skittering through parking lots, drifting through the air like pale jellyfish, snagged on river banks or floating in the ocean. These plastic bags, they virtually never break down, although the sun does reduce them to small pieces, ideal for choking marine birds and sea turtles who mistake them for food. For those who are less swayed by sea turtles, it's estimated that we Californians pay more than $300 million every year in higher grocery costs and taxes to help our cities and towns clean up plastic bags. Californians Against Waste puts the annual cost of managing plastic bag litter in our state at 34 million to 107 million dollars.

And from what I see, that management isn't very effective.

Of late, however, California has been waging war upon the plastic bag, and our town of Ventura has joined in. To date, some 90 California cities or counties have adopted plastic bag bans. Just up the road in Santa Barbara County, the tiny burg of Carpinteria was the first in the state to adopt a double bag ban (March 2012), following that (July 2012) with a ban prohibiting large retailers from distributing single-use paper and plastic bags. Now on a bonafide roll, in April 2013 Carpinteria banned plastic bags in all other retail stores. Perhaps shamed, the city of Santa Barbara followed suit.

Here in Ventura County, Ojai has adopted a plastic bag ban in all grocery and retail stores, no real surprise as the only town greener is Ireland. Two weeks ago, the Ventura City Council voted 6-1 to draft an ordinance banning plastic bags and requiring residents to pay 10 cents per paper bag or bring their own reusable bags. Thanks in large part to the city of Los Angeles coming on board, plastic bag ordinances currently cover roughly 30 percent of the state's population.

I salute these towns and cities. I also salute you for reading this far. Plastic bag bans are not the sexiest topic. Odds are a poll of discriminating readers will reveal few know that the African nation of Rwanda was the first country to ban plastic bags (in 2008), but more than a few know where Miley Cyrus puts her hands. This is not a fault. It's just the way we're wired. It is also interesting to note that, regarding plastic bags and plastics in general, we're not so much forward thinking as backward falling. Today plastics comprise almost 13 percent of America's municipal solid waste stream, but in 1960, plastics were less than one percent of the waste stream. Here in California, a return to the sixties will be far out for many.

The steamrolling ban on plastic bags is not without problems. Some worry that shop lifting will increase with customers carrying their own more durable and spacious bags into stores (Let's see a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, a 72-inch flat screen TV...). The other day in the local grocery where we shop, a checker I know raised a problem I hadn't considered.

"A lot of people never clean their reusable bags," she said, crinkling her nose. "It's awful. The bags are all wrinkled from being stuffed inside each other and they smell disgusting. Ewwwwwww."

"Ewwwwwww," agreed the bagger.

Nodding agreement I snatched my wrinkled bag and left quickly.

Up against attention-grabbing headlines like Kim Kardashian's selfies and "Bachelor" do's and don't's, raising plastic bag awareness is no easy matter. Californians Against Waste tried a Haiku contest.


Bottle caps afloat
Mother snatches from the sea
Sad meal for her chick


With conservation in mind, this grand prize winner received a recycled glass bowl.

What motivates us to change is a highly individual matter. I doubt the Haiku winner needed motivation to change. They probably wash their reusable bags, too. I know that during most of my days I give plastic bags no thought. But I'm glad someone does, for mine is a dangerous attitude with a predictable outcome.

When children play in the park they should not hear a whopping in the trees.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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