Powerful Results, Positive Trends: California’s Bag Ban One Year Out

A little over a year ago, California voters became the first in the United States to approve a single-use plastic bag ban. With the passage of Proposition 67, Californians took a stand to protect our state’s diverse and fragile environmental systems from being further harmed by plastic bag litter. One year later, we are proud to say that the ban has been successful in reducing the amount of plastic that reaches local waterways and harms wildlife and water quality.

Data from Coastal Clean-Up Day shows that there has been a 72% decline in plastic bag litter from 2010, and plastic bags now account for only 1.5% of total litter compared to 10% seven years before. Furthermore, it cost the state $400 million, or about $10 per resident, to clean up littered bags prior to the ban.

Far from going unnoticed, California’s plastic bag ban set a trend. Hawaii decided to implement its own statewide bag ban, and municipalities across Massachusetts and Washington have taken the same step to protect waterways and wildlife. While many states have yet to follow our example, Californians should be proud of the fact that we have proven ourselves once again to be leaders in protecting both local and global waters from toxic plastic pollution.

Alameda County single-use bag ban expands

Alameda County has recently expanded the scope of its single-use bag ban to include eateries. This means plastic take-out bags will no longer be available at restaurants, bakeries, cafés, bars, and food trucks across the county.

There were a few clues this might be coming, with a significant amount of Alameda County dining establishments already making the switch to more eco-friendly paper bags. But the decision earlier this month means that Alameda County now has one of the strongest bag bans in the Bay Area and a tougher policy than the one in effect across the state.

The first single-use plastic bag ban in Alameda County took effect in January 2013, but it only applied to grocery, drug, and liquor stores. In June of this year, retail stores were added to that list. The impacts of the bag ban have been very positive. There has been an 80% decline in the number of single-use plastic bags purchased by businesses for distribution, and a 44% decline in plastic bags ending up in the county’s storm drains.

Alameda County has been a leader in addressing the negative consequences of plastic bags and their impacts on the San Francisco Bay. We hope that restaurants across the county continue this leadership and act quickly to comply with the law. Repeated non-compliance could result in a fine or other enforcement action for businesses. Consumers can use this form to let the county know about restaurants that may need their help in transitioning to the new law: http://www.reusablebagsac.org/non-compliance-reporting-form

First Flush Drains Pollution into the Bay

What comes to your mind when entering the bath after a long, busy day? Most likely you’ll be feeling clean and relaxed. However, have you ever thought about the contents of your bath water afterwards? After all, the oils, bacteria, and other grime on your body don’t magically disappear after they’ve been stripped off.

Similarly, rain flowing through streets appears to clean the landscape as it washes away trash and dirt. Unfortunately, the first significant rainfall of the year holds an often overlooked dirty not-so-secret. It’s called the first flush, and it’s not just trash and dirt that’s being removed from Bay Area streets. Motor oil, cigarette butts, pet waste, pesticides, and other pollutants are picked up by rainwater and enter storm drains, which flow into creeks and ultimately into San Francisco Bay, which acts as a bathtub for the region that drains into the ocean.

North Bay Fire’s Continued Destruction

This year, the first flush brings with it an even greater concern for pollutants into the local waterscape with the tragic and devastating North Bay firestorm in Sonoma and Napa Counties. In addition to homes and businesses, the fires destroyed vegetation that would have stored excess rainwater and filtered its contents through soil. This means that wastes such as household chemicals and heavy metals from burnt areas, which turn more toxic after being exposed to fire, can flow much more freely into local creeks and into the Bay, making the first flush that much more hazardous to wildlife and public health.

The good news is that North Bay, state, and federal officials have acknowledged this threat to regional water quality and are constructing and planning collection ponds to capture and filter debris-ridden water before it enters creeks. Nevertheless, with the additional burden coming from this tragedy, Bay Area residents should be extra vigilant at preventing trash and other pollution from ending up in the Bay and further poisoning wildlife and water quality.

How Can I Help?

Rain is nature’s way of cleansing the landscape, but first flush serves as a reminder that our urban areas act as nature’s drain and there is still a lot of work to be done to stop the flow of pollution into San Francisco Bay. We can start with simple actions such as not littering, moving cars from the sidewalk on street sweeping days, using reusable bags and bottles, and taking the pledge to prevent trash from entering the Bay.