Good riddance to microbeads

Artwork by first grader Johanna N. courtesy of the  NOAA Marine Debris Program

It’s hard to muster a lot of sympathy for the plastics industry. Especially if you know anything at all about the vast islands of plastic debris that foul our oceans. Or if one of those heart-wrenching photos of a baby sea turtle entangled in trash makes it into your Facebook feed. Or if you take just a moment to think about all the toxic, plastic pollution entering our food chain.

The industry would have us believe the blame falls squarely with consumers. After all, we buy this stuff, we toss it out, and—let’s be honest—most of us don’t do everything we can to make sure it ends up recycled or in a landfill instead of the ocean.

But then there are microbeads—those pointless plastic particles used in personal care products, that pretty much have no reason to exist. Who was the jerk who came up with this idea? What was the pitch in the boardroom? “So, we don’t have any reason to think people actually want plastic nubbins in their soap and toothpaste, but let’s put it in there and call it an innovation. In fact, let’s put 350,000 pieces of polyethylene in every bottle of face scrub we sell, and sit back while this stuff washes down millions of drains and into the environment.”

Thankfully, not everyone is so cavalier, and last month the California Assembly passed legislation banning plastic microbeads in personal care products sold in California. If signed into law, AB 888 would be the strongest protection in the country against these frivolous pollutants.

That’s important, because while the particles are tiny, they accumulate in huge numbers. An estimated 470 million are released into San Francisco Bay every single day, where they bind with other environmental toxins and appear as food to wildlife, polluting our food chain.

It’s easy to get riled up by water bottles, disposable bags and identifiable consumer junk that pollute our ocean, because we can see those things. And the companies that make this stuff can try to put all the blame on consumers, as if they have no responsibility for the life cycle of the products they create. But Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste (a sponsor of AB 888) put it best when he said:

“If a manufacturer tried to dump 40 tons of plastic pollution into the ocean, they would be arrested and fined for violating the Clean Water Act. But these cosmetic and soap makers are doing the same thing on a daily basis with billions of plastic microbeads washed down millions of drains.”

It’s worth noting that some companies have pledged to phase microplastics out of their products, but many producers are still using them. And even if the bill is signed into law, the ban doesn’t go into effect until 2020.

That leaves enough time for 771,975,000,000 microbeads to pour into our Bay. So in the meantime, how about we all just agree to stop using this stuff now?

Our victories will always be under assault

plastic bag in tree
The plastics industry is spending millions to roll back progress on banning plastic bags.

As of last month, plastic bag bans are illegal in the state of Arizona, and I’m all riled up about it.

Granted, no one can be surprised by anti-environment measures in that deeply conservative state, and there are plenty of pollution issues closer to home that deserve more of my energy. But it still drives me nuts that communities like Bisbee (Arizona’s first and only community to pass a bag-ban ordinance) and a handful of others that were considering similar measures, no longer have the option to say “no” to this plastic, toxic trash.

The issue gets under my skin because together, the plastic industry and conservative politicians have their sights set on much more than rolling back progress in a 5,000-person community in the high desert. In fact, recently the city of Huntington Beach moved to trash the bag ban that protects some of California’s most extraordinary beaches. These rollbacks are stark reminders that our hard-fought victories will always be under assault.

There’s no clearer example of this attack than the deeply disingenuous referendum to overturn California’s groundbreaking plastic bag ban, which will appear on ballots in November. As the Los Angeles Daily News opined:

“The referendum is yet another example of an out-of-state business abusing the state’s initiative process. There is nothing grass-roots about it. The plastics industry paid the signature gatherers, and 98 percent of the money came from out of state. More than $500,000 came from Hylex Poly of South Carolina, the largest plastic-bag manufacturer in the nation.”

Save The Bay and its allies paved the way for the statewide ban. Our victories demonstrate that these ordinances are an effective way to curb pollution; that they don’t harm small businesses as opponents claim; and that shoppers quickly embrace the reusable-bag habit. With California’s statewide bag ban now on hold and under fire, we might take some small comfort that whatever happens in November, the protections we’ve won for the Bay Area remain strong.

But we’d be fools to let down our guard. The plastic industry makes $150 million per year selling plastic bags in California alone, and they are well aware that the Bay Area’s leadership on environmental issues is a bellwether for progress around the state and across the country.

They won’t back down from this fight, and neither will we.

Will you help Save The Bay continue its fight against plastic pollution? To support our work and show your Save The Bay pride, become a sustainer today.

Reality Check for Big Plastic: 60% of California Supports the Bag Ban

Bag Ban Referendum Plastics Industry Pollution Plastic Bags
Plastic bags are a blight on the environment, no matter how the plastics industry spins it. Photo via Anthony Fine on Flickr.

Hot button issues like the passing of recent statewide bag ban – the first of its kind in the nation, thanks to Governor Jerry Brown and the hard work of thousands of like-minded activists (at the state and local level) – never fail to bring out the best and worst in people.

When it was signed into law on September 30th, victory bells rang, birds flew triumphantly through the air, ocean wildlife breathed a sigh of relief, and life went on much as it did before the bag ban passed. Employment rates did not plunge (bag ban opponents claimed they would), and no one except for the grumpiest of grumbly Republicans complained of government overreach. Statewide support for the bag ban remains strong.

Although its impact stands to keep billions, yes, billions of plastic bags out of landfills and our waterways, prevent them from harming the environment for centuries (because plastic literally does not biodegrade), and save Californians millions and millions of dollars collectively each year, plastic bag manufacturers still want the law overturned.

Why? So they can keep making money, of course! If you want a good chuckle, read the comical propaganda manufacturing giants like Novolex have concocted to distract you from their ulterior motives. Some of our favorite bogus statements are outlined in this LA Times’ editorial by columnist David Lazarus, which calls out the plastics industry’s claims and smartly compares its current position to the car industry’s opposition to seat belt laws.

But they aren’t simply spreading misinformation via websites and social media. Bag ban opponents are going full throttle on a referendum to reverse the law. They’ve got street teams all over California collecting signatures (they need 500,000 by the year’s end to make it onto the November 2016 ballot) to reverse all the progress our state has already made. Now, there’s a way to stop them. Californians Against Waste is asking people to report signature gathering using this form. Just last week, Save The Bay spotted a paid signature collector in downtown Oakland outside of our local Rite Aid – and we reported him. CAW will then use this information to put bag ban advocates on the ground to counteract opponents’ efforts, hold media stunts, and inform the public as to why the bag ban is crucial for the health and vibrancy of California.

So yes, even though we’ve won the battle against the bags for now, we have to stay on our toes and keep that victory in our grasp. Help send a message to the plastics industry that they are on the wrong side of history and report any paid signature gatherers here.

Let’s Send a Clear Message to the Plastic Bag Industry

Photo by Alistair
The plastic bag industry just needs to realize it’s over.

Thick skulled. Tone deaf. Toxic. Desperate. Dumb.

Any other ideas what to call a pig-headed industry group, led by a South Carolina-based polluter and bent on rolling back progress in California?

The group aims to stop California’s groundbreaking ban on single use plastic bags by putting it to a popular vote. To overturn the law, they’d have to collect 500,000 voter signatures by the end of the year to get a referendum on the November 2016 ballot. They’re prepared to spend big to make that happen.

But we don’t think the state bag ban is going anywhere. Thanks to regional victories by Save The Bay and others, one-third of Californians already live with a local bag ban, and the sky has not fallen. Grocers have not gone out of business. Consumers have not revolted in outrage. In fact, adapting has been easy, and we’ve already kept billions of wasteful bags from littering our cities, contaminating our waters and choking our wildlife.

Unfortunately, if opponents of progress get enough signatures to place the repeal on the ballot, the state would have to shelve the ban until a popular vote could happen at the end of next year. That delay alone would mean 18 billion—yes, billion with a B—single-use bags unnecessarily wasted.

As an editorial in the Mercury News smartly puts it:

 “If ever a referendum deserved to be trashed, it’s the plastics industry’s attempt to undo California’s first-in-the-nation plastic bag ban. … If it does, let’s call it the Right to Pollute Streams and the Ocean, Kill Wildlife and Overflow Landfills Initiative.”

So tell your friends, family and neighbors to watch out for the plastic industry’s paid canvassers, and to be prepare to tell them exactly where they can stick their single-use plastic bags when they come looking for a signature.

Update: If you see paid signature gatherers attempting to overturn the California Bag Ban, please report them.

Reusable Bag Scare Part II – (Still) Don’t Believe the Hype

Toxic Plastic
Plastic bags are the real threat — to our health and to the Bay.

An anti-bag ban study is getting a lot of attention on conservative news outlets, which appear to be very excited at the opportunity to bash both the City of San Francisco and good environmental policies. Let’s pile on, it’s so fun!

But maybe first, consider the facts? The claim that 51 percent of reusable bags contained E. coli bacteria ignores the well-known fact that most strains of E. coli are harmless. No deadly bacteria commonly found in food poisoning cases— including listeria and salmonella—were found in any of the sampled bags. Second, consider the source: the study was funded by an organization that fundamentally opposes government regulation to improve the environment.

As for the headline grabbing claim of fatalities, correlating increased emergency room visits and deaths from food poisoning with the onset of the bag ban is not enough to convince thinking people that reusable bags are deadly—especially since bags tested in other studies haven’t turned up any deadly bacteria. If we are going to have a conversation about mortality, remember that plastic bags are known to kill at least 25 children a year, leading to widespread warning labels on bags and the advice from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission to “keep plastic bags away from children.”

The study also focuses on the fact that 97 percent of people don’t wash their bags. Good reminder to do so, as we note here.