Plastic pollution plagues SF Bay

Have you ever wondered what happens to those pesky plastic bags or polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) containers that blow out of trash cans and float aimlessly along city streets and through neighborhoods?

Eventually, this plastic pollution finds its way to storm drains, creeks, bays and oceans. Once in the water plastic bags and Styrofoam becomes toxic food for unsuspecting wildlife or flows to join the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of trash in the North Pacific Ocean, twice the size of Texas, where studies have found that plastic particles are more abundant than plankton. Plastic litter also smothers our precious wetlands, poisons water quality and degrades our quality of life.

Each year Save The Bay (San Francisco) releases a list of Bay Trash Hot Spots, highlighting the massive and growing problem of trash pollution in San Francisco Bay. The 2010 Hot Spots showcase 225 shoreline areas and creeks all around the Bay polluted with plastic bags, fast food containers and more. The staggering number of hot spots underscores the severity of this problem and the imperative for Bay Area cities to take the lead in eliminating trash from our waterways.

Plastic bags and Styrofoam are some of the most pervasive and costly types of marine pollution. In fact, both items are consistently among the most frequent items of litter picked up by volunteers during Coastal Cleanup Day each year; and Save The Bay estimates that more than one million plastic bags wind up in the Bay each year. Plastic bags and polystyrene do not biodegrade; instead, they break into smaller pieces and are ingested by wildlife.

Amazingly, Californians use approximately 19 billion plastic bags every year. But here is the kicker: the average use time of a plastic bag is only 12 minutes!

It’s time to really do something about plastic litter and pollution. The reality is less than one half of one percent of polystyrene food packaging is recycled in California. And for the past 15 years, California has made a concerted effort to promote plastic bag recycling, but despite this, less than five percent are actually recycled and there is little market for “down-cycled” plastic film. What’s more, recycling firms report extensive costs from trying to recycle plastic bags because they jam processing machines and cause work stoppages.

Public education campaigns and cleanups are great ways to raise awareness about the problem, but to really reduce plastic pollution, cities and counties must prioritize legislation that ends the distribution of these commonly littered items, prompting consumers to switch en masse to reusable bags and other Bay-friendly food packaging alternatives.

Not surprisingly, the multi-billion dollar plastics industry has dispatched lobbyists to California and other states to block efforts to reduce plastic bag or polystyrene use. Like the tobacco industry, which launched campaigns to stop smoking bans, the plastic bag industry has sued or is threatening to sue cities across the country.

Even so, Washington, D.C. successfully passed a single-use bag fee that has reduced bag use throughout the city despite the bag industry strongly lobbying against it and several cities in the Bay Area have effectively banned Styrofoam. And even though the plastics industry pulled out all the stops to defeat California’s statewide bag bill – AB1998 – San Jose, the largest city in the Bay Area, is on the brink of passing landmark legislation to ban plastic and paper bags (with some exceptions), which will make a hugely positive impact on the health of the Bay.

The nation is at a tipping point as more and more cities move toward eliminating plastic pollution and California is on the forefront of the movement. The Golden State has come closer than any other to passing statewide legislation to ban plastic bags and nearly 50 municipalities across the state – 19 in the Bay Area alone – have banned some form of polystyrene food packaging. It is time for the rest of the nation to follow California’s lead and crack down on the plastic pollution plaguing our waterways.

P.S. In the meantime, let’s do what we can to prevent plastic trash! We can:

Reduce our impact by making the switch to reusable bags and Bay-friendly food packaging options.

Advocate for policies and regulations that significantly reduce plastic trash flowing to our waterways.

Volunteer to clean up and restore shorelines and creeks.

— Amy Ricard, Media Relations Manager