By Wes Sims
At issue is whether cities and counties have the authority to ban single-use plastic bags from grocery and retail stores, to keep them from reaching the ocean, where they can be ingested by marine wildlife. Plastic bag-bans began in San Francisco, and spread through Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, all the way to Los Angeles. Why does Stephen Joseph care? A 2008 founding document states that the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition includes plastic bag manufacturers, plastic bag distributors, retailers, and concerned citizens. But the current website says the Coalition is totally independent and … quote … the only organization that is questioning and challenging misinformation, myths, exaggerations, and hype spread by anti-plastic bag activists. The page also declares that environmental policy should be based on facts. Fair enough! So in this report, we go to the academic community to examine specific claims from Stephen Joseph.
Joseph told us: “the worst case that we have seen of mis-information is in Santa Cruz County.”
“For instance,” he said. “They say that plastic bags that are used in this country use over 12-million barrels of oil in their production. That assumes that plastic bags are made of oil. Plastic bags are not made of oil. It’s a total myth.“
To answer this question, we went to U.C. Santa Cruz to speak with Dr. Rebecca Braslau; a chemistry professor who specializes in organic polymers and plastics.
“Plastic bags are made of polyethylene, and the grocery-type bags are high-density polyethylene,” Braslau said. “And they are made exclusively from ethylene, which is a small organic molecule and all of the ethylene production in the world comes ultimately from fossil fuels.”
We also asked Professor Braslau about Joseph’s challenge of a statement from Santa Cruz County that plastic bits in the ocean … not bags, but bits absorb dangerous compounds …
“In an aqua environment of the ocean, anything that’s a greasy molecule, and polyethylene is very greasy compared to water, it’s what we call hydrophobic,“ she said. “I would expect that polyethylene bag bits would absorb organic hydrocarbons that shouldn’t be in the aqua environment.”
As to the danger posed by plastic bags, Stephen Joseph sites a London Times article that marine mammals are being killed by discarded fishing nets. But a UC Santa Cruz marine biologist says plastic bags don’t get a free pass.
Dr. Terrie Williams is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Her office is at Long Marine Lab, which invites children to visit the outdoor sea pools where Professor Williams does some of her research.
“I’ve seen bags around the necks of pinnipeds, you know, sea lions and seals,” Williams said. “And even on one occasion, was at the necropsy of a sperm whale that had come up in Hawaii on the beach and we had to determine cause of death. The cause of death in that case after I reached my arm into the stomach of this animal was plastic debris in the stomach and it eventually caused the animal to starve and then die.”
And finally, there’s Stephen Joseph’s primary complaint with the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors:
“They know that they based their ban on misinformation but they simply don’t care. “
District 4 County Supervisor Ellen Pirie said: “I’m very interested in getting accurate information. But what was important to me was really the undisputed fact that the plastic bags end up as litter all over our county, and many end up in the ocean where they do a great deal of damage.“
The debate may not be over, but more than two months after the plastic bag ban went into effect in Santa Cruz County, bringing your own bags into grocery and retail stores, is the new normal.