Local Hero: Solving the Plastic Bag Problem

By: Marialisa Calta
Plastic grocery bags are discarded by the billions each year in the United States and end up crowding landfills. Here's what one California politician is doing about it.
Urban tumbleweed. Bag hawks. Shoppers’ kites. Whatever you call them, plastic grocery bags are discarded by the billions each year in the United States and end up floating in waterways, dangling from trees and crowding landfills. But soon there will be fewer pesky plastic bags overtaking California’s landscapes, thanks to state assemblyman Lloyd Levine. Levine introduced a bill—recently signed into law—that requires supermarkets and large stores to implement an in-store plastic bag “take-back” and recycling program.
After the law kicks into effect (in June of this year), California stores will only be permitted to distribute plastic bags imprinted with instructions to return them to participating stores. The stores then will send them off to recycling centers. Plastic bags can be used to make new bags as well as traffic cones and patio furniture, according to reusablebags.com. Stores also will be required to fund campaigns educating consumers about how to recycle bags (i.e., via store, not curbside, programs) and to offer sturdy reusable bags for sale. Levine sees the bill as a step in the right direction, but says curbside recycling (which requires the least effort of consumers) would be the “gold standard.”
Levine first became aware of the bag problem during his regular runs along the Los Angeles River. “I come across thousands of plastic bags,” he says. “Some of the trees look like Christmas trees, only with bags in place of ornaments.” Levine discovered that Californians use 19 billion bags a year, creating 147,038 tons of trash and killing thousands of marine animals who ingest the bags or become entangled in them. Global production of these bags is estimated at about 1 trillion annually, consuming 12 million barrels of oil.
As for that perennial check-out question, “Paper or plastic?”, according to reusablebags.com the pros and cons are roughly equal. Visit the website to learn about recent legislation (or to shop for products that help cut bag consumption).