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The Price of Plastic
Shirley King | Avenida Primavera

Plastic trash near Anderson Canyon. Photo Art Olson
Click on image to enlarge.

Free plastic bags have cost us dearly; primarily in the price of their pollution and waste. But slowly the plastic bag is being priced out of the world marketplace. Countries such as Haiti and Rwanda have banned plastic bags - removing the chokehold that these bags have on their environments and struggling economies. However in the US plastic bag bans have emerged from the bottom up in citizen-initiated ad hoc local initiatives.

A draft ordinance for a proposed ban of single use plastic bags will have its first reading before the Del Mar City Council on February 16th. The recommendation to ban the consumer use of plastic bags in our City was presented at the December 7th Council meeting by a subcommittee of the Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB) accompanied by volunteers of the Surfrider Foundation. Their proposal was modelled upon the ordinances already passed and now executed by the Cities of Solana Beach and Encinitas - unlike Del Mar, these cities have many grocers and big name retailers.

Inherent to this proposed ban is the behavioral goal to benefit our local environment by undoing the habitual use of plastic bags. Because the world has thoroughly debated and concluded that the decades-long addiction to freely available plastic bags burdens fossil fuel impact and causes environmental destructiveness in ocean-bound litter and in long-lived contaminants, our Council can spare themselves that discussion. Rather now the Council has the chance to broaden the understanding about how to disrupt consumer behavior for the sake of the environment - specifically, how to steadily increase the use of reusable bags; agreeably a little less convenient, but much more pro-environment.

As we should expect, the Council will evaluate whether an outright ban or perhaps a lesser regulatory intervention is the most effective approach - and not anytime too soon as the California voters will have their say on the November ballot about a state-wide ban. Even though we are arriving a little late to the party, our Council can use the lessons already learned. SAB recommends the phased timing of plastic bag elimination by our retail merchants by October, 2016 and the restaurants and the Farmers Market by April, 2017. The default bag option is a paper bag for an additional charge.

While over 140 municipalities in California have banned single use plastic bags outright, there are increasing numbers of countries and communities nationwide such as Washington, DC that have sidestepped a ban by instituting a plastic bag charge without the option of substituting a paper bag. A recent study by a team of Argentinian researchers concluded that plastic bag fees in Buenos Aires worked to dramatically increase the habit of people carrying their own bags. According to the researchers these findings suggest that consumers’ pro-environment attitudes are activated by having to accept the bag levy at the point of sale. The nations of the British Isles are witnessing the same results with their new plastic bag levy, ‘plastax’, without the option of paper bags.
Whether an outright ban or an immediate plastic bag fee in enacted, Del Mar can shift the costs of plastic bag pollution away from the price our ocean life has been paying for our consumer habits. And we will move ourselves closer to a culture of zero waste.


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