Plastic Pollution, Bag Bans
June 13 2011

California Legislators Address Marine Debris With SB 568

by Angela Howe

During the 2010 Coastal Cleanup Day, Surfrider Foundation activists and other beachgoers picked up over 1.1 million pounds of litter from California beaches.  Of this, 60-80% was plastic.  These numbers show that the issue of single-use plastic pollution is far from going away in the Golden State.

State legislators addressed the issue in 2010 by nearly passing AB 1998, the Bag Ban Bill, that would have put a ban on all single-use plastic bags and a 5 cent fee on any paper bags handed out at grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores.  The bill was designed to encourage Californians to make the switch to reusable and stop the nearly 600 bags that are thrown away every minute.  Unfortunately, in the final hour of the final day of the session, the Senate failed to pass AB 1998 by a vote of 14-21.  Had AB 1998 passed, it would have gone to the Governor who had pledged support.  

In response to the slim defeat of AB 1998, California activists did not roll over and give up on the issue of single-use plastic bag pollution.  To the contrary, Governor Schwarzenegger gave a press conference encouraging cities to act on the issue.  Capturing the momentum, several jurisdictions exhibited renewed commitment to addressing the plastic bag issue.  Surfrider Foundation’s West Los Angeles/Malibu and Marin County Chapters worked with their City Councils and County Board of Supervisors to enact local bag bans.  A total of five local ordinances have passed in California since the legislators failed to act last August, and now 10% of the California population is covered by a bag ban.  Looking ahead in 2011, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley may also introduce and revive the effort for statewide legislation on the bag issue as well.

Currently, California legislators are addressing another prevalent form of plastic pollution – Polystyrene Food Containers – with a bill introduced by Senator Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.  This bill would prohibit a food vendor or restaurant, on or after January 1, 2013, from dispensing prepared food to a customer in a polystyrene foam container (aka Styrofoam™).  SB 568 passed through the Senate and is expected to be voted on in the California Assembly this summer.  The issue has also taken off at the local level, with 47 jurisdictions in California banning single-use polystyrene foam takeout containers, most recently in the City of San Clemente.  As any beachgoer can tell you, these plastic foam containers easily break apart into tiny particles and disperse into the litter stream.  To make matters worse, the styrene component of the foam is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin, potentially harmful to human health.

Whether it is single-use plastic bags, or polystyrene foam, there will certainly be more action at the local and statewide level in California to address plastic pollution, allowing opportunities for Surfrider Foundation to deploy our powerful activist network.