Local politicians tackle single-use polystyrene and plastic bags.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Plastic comprises up to 90 percent of floating marine debris. Most of it blows from land to sea, where it breaks down into tiny pieces animals mistake for food. The problem comes back to us as seafood, which is often contaminated with toxic plastic components.
More than 20 local politicians joined seven environmental groups at West Marine in Watsonville recently for the Mayors Ocean Summit, an event focused on reducing the use of disposable plastic bags and polystyrene (Styrofoam) packaging in coastal cities.
“We don’t want to change as a people, and that’s the problem,” says Jim Ayers, vice president of Oceana. “We want someone to tell us we can keep doing what we’re doing, and it’s OK. And that’s a lie.”
U.S. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) and Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Monterey) mingled with a dozen Central Coast mayors, including Sue McCloud of Carmel, Dan Cort of Pacific Grove, Ralph Rubio of Seaside and Chuck Della Sala of Monterey.
The organizers – Oceana, West Marine, The Ocean Conservancy, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Sea Studios Foundation, Surfrider Foundation and Save Our Shores – closed the event to the press, except for a short schmooze session at the end.
McCloud, who chairs the regional Litter Task Force, says the marine debris problem shouldn’t surprise Monterey Peninsula officials. “A lot of stuff was just old hat to me, in the sense that we’ve been working on this,” she says. “With the Aquarium being here, it’s just second nature.”
Cort, an Oceana advisory board member, says he’ll continue to push a plastic bag ban after his Aug. 31 resignation as PG mayor.
In Monterey County, the cities of Carmel, Pacific Grove and Monterey have banned take-out polystyrene. The unincorporated county may soon join them: A draft polystyrene ban is in the works and will likely land before the Supervisors this winter, according to John Ramirez of Monterey County Environmental Health.
No local jurisdictions have taken up a plastic bag ban – largely because they’re up against a well-funded bully.
The American Chemistry Council, representing plastics manufacturers, has poured millions of dollars into efforts to block, stall and reverse local laws restricting plastic bags and polystyrene. The industry has sued at least five cities that have attempted plastic bag bans, arguing that they must first prepare an environmental impact report.
“Plastic bags are a really horrible problem, but we’re getting a lot of pushback from the ACC,” Cort says. “How are we ever going to deal with these environmental issues when everyone’s threatening lawsuits?”
In response, the state Ocean Protection Council moved to create a “master environmental assessment” that allows cities to adopt plastic bag bans without the specter of a lawsuit. When the state budget crunch put the kibosh on that effort, Green Cities California, a coalition of jurisdictions, stepped in. The group aims to make an MEA available to cities by next spring.
There’s momentum in the state Legislature, too. A current law prevents municipalities from charging customers for plastic bags at big grocery stores, but two proposed bills (AB 68 and AB 87) could roll back that law and allow for a $0.25 fee. AB 1358 would ban polystyrene take-out containers at restaurants.
All three bills stalled out this session but may be resurrected in January, Monning says. In addition to the chemical lobby’s opposition, the bill’s supporters face resistance from most Republicans, and from some Dems who worry the fee would be a hardship for low-income Californians.
Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb, who spoke at the summit, says the private sector has a role to play. His company has already eliminated plastic bags at the check stand, replacing them with 100 percent recycled paper, and switched to carryout containers made from sugarcane pulp. (Plastic bags are still dispensed in the produce and bulk sections.)
“This idea that financial success and environmental sustainability are separate is an illusion,” Robb says. “The only way to pierce that illusion is through courageous acts of leadership.”