Tax the plastic bags plaguing the planet

by Stacey Oparnica

Artwork courtesy of contributor Tammi Kendrick
Artwork courtesy of contributor Tammi Kendrick

They clutter, pollute and kill. They’re the most common ocean waste after cigarette butts. They stalk the end of grocery store aisles and linger beneath the counters of your local convenient stores.

One after another, we swipe them up to avoid carrying our merchandise to our cars by hand. They’re the most destructive things to ever line your trashcans.

They’re plastic bags.

I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard or read about the recent uproar concerning their harmful and appalling environmental impact. Still, few care enough to actually do something about it.

Lightweight, durable and convenient as they may be, plastic bags are non-biodegradable and take an estimated 1,000 years to decompose. They are photodegradable, which means they only break down into smaller toxic bits.

Embarrassingly enough, this doesn’t stop the U.S. from consuming 100 billion single-use plastic bags every year, 19 billion of which are consumed solely by Californian residents.

At San Diego State, for example, we constantly choose to carry our food and drinks in plastic bags instead of using our own two hands, or better yet, putting the snacks in our backpacks or purses. As bright and concerned students, we have no excuse for contributing so ignorantly to this issue when an easy and effective alternative is literally within the power of our own hands.

Unfortunately, the root of the problem extends much further beyond our own irresponsible shopping habits. Cue in to Assembly Bill 1998. Led by assembly member Julia Brownley, the Plastic Bag Ban bill would have banned “stores from handing out single-use plastic or paper bags for customers to carry out their purchases and instead provide reusable bags for purchase.”

Those in support — including dozens of city councilmembers, recycling associations and the Surfrider Foundation — anxiously held their breath while the California legislature reviewed the bill.

Had AB 1998 passed, what would the elimination of these toxic handbags have actually entailed? Would it mean 100,000 ocean animals — the estimated number of marine life killed by plastic debris every year — wouldn’t choke to death? Does this mean we wouldn’t have to waste $25 million a year transporting plastic bags to landfills? What would California look like with 19 billion less pollutants on our beaches, parks and highways? With the extraordinary environmental possibilities this bill represented, you can imagine the horror these organizations must have felt when the California legislature rejected the proposal last August.

While bitterness and betrayal littered the air, many questioned why the Senate had failed to propel California in a more environmentally responsible direction. Quick to defend the Senate’s decision was The American Chemistry Council, “a group that represents the interests of chemical companies, including 80 percent of companies around the country that produce plastic bags,” according to California Watch.

The ACC, attempting to appear compassionate, rallied relentlessly against the bill, stating the proposal threatened vital American jobs and consumer choice. Ronald Fong, president of the California Grocers Association, had other interpretations.

“It’s clear that the Senate felt pressure by the American Chemistry Council’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions (and the ACC’s) misinformation campaign and radio, television and print ads designed to kill this historic compromise.” Indeed, as reported in The Sacramento Bee, “at least seven senators … received campaign donations directly from the council or council affiliates Exxon and … Hilex Poly Co.,” which, interestingly enough, are members of the ACC.

In fact, Exxon and HPC reportedly gave a total of $20,000, “among other donations,” to the Democratic State Central Committee of California and the Republican Party in a matter of two days. What was Tim Shestek’s, the ACC’s director of state and local public affairs, response?

“We try to build relationships and support.” Disgusting. Lobbying at its finest.

But I refuse to give up. When Ireland implemented its 33 cent plastic bag tax in 2002, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent within a matter of weeks. In 2008, when China forbade “shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets from providing free plastic bags that (were) less than .025 millimeters thick,” consumption decreased by 66 percent by the first ban review.

Considering bending over backward for those with political connections hasn’t produced any comparable results, I’m going to assume environmental conservation isn’t at the top of our senate’s priority list. Enough is enough. It’s time California takes the initiative and begins preserving something other than corporate bank accounts.

—Stacey Oparnica is a journalism sophomore.

—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.