The following article is reprinted by permission from the Benicia Herald in Benicia, California, USA. Donna Beth Weilenman, staff reporter, details a presentation by students of Benicia High School's award-winning Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship (SAGE). The students made the presentation to the Benicia Community Sustainability Commission in early May. Visit the Benicia Herald online for other local stories of Benicia, CA.
High School Club Urges City Ban On Plastic Bags
By Donna Beth Weilenman, Staff Reporter
SAGE students tell commission of turtle deaths
Anna Distephano brought two large glass jars into a meeting of the Benicia Community Sustainability Commission last week and set them on a table.
Both contained several small, translucent objects with strands that drifted as the jars were moved. It took a close look to see which jar held rubbery models of squid and jellyfish, and which contained shreds of plastic shopping bags.
And if the people attending the meeting had to look twice to tell the difference, imagine the challenge for sea turtles and other marine life, Distephano said.
Representing Benicia High School’s award-winning Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship, Distephano then issued a challenge to the city of Benicia: Ban plastic bags.
The student director of the group said SAGE’s Civic Engagement Group decided to study plastic bags, their use and their impact on the environment and learned that more than 500 billion are used each year — about 1 million a minute, she said. It takes 12 million barrels of oil to make the bags.
Once the bags enter the environment, she said, they never leave, degrading in the sun in such a way that they only break into smaller pieces that aren’t absorbed into the environment the way paper is. Plastic accounts for more than 80 percent of land litter, cluttering beaches and roads in Somalia, China and other countries, Distephano said.
Floating in the Pacific Ocean is enough plastic debris to cover the United States twice over, and it’s not just in the infamous “garbage patch” accumulating in an eddy between California and Hawaii that has grown to twice the size of Texas, she said.
Sadly, three of five sea turtles, including endangered species, die from eating plastic bags, Distephano said, holding up first the jar of marine life and then the jar of shredded plastic that uncannily resembled a turtle’s natural food.
“And it’s a slow kill,” she said, with each animal agonizing or starving before it dies. A turtle’s digestive system prevents it from regurgitating unsuitable food. Plastic bags kill more than 100,000 deaths of sea turtles, whales and other marine animals each year, either by ingestion or by choking, Distephano said.
Some countries have imposed taxes on plastic bags. Ireland assessed a 33-cent tax per bag, and use has dropped there 94 percent, Distephano said.
Other places have banned them outright. Bangladesh banned them in 2002 after discovering the floods that covered two thirds of that country in 1988 and 1998 were aggravated by plastic bags that choked the drainage system. For similar reasons, Mumbai, India’s council eliminated plastic bags in 2001.
The presentation both impressed and stunned the Commission, and Chairman Constance Beutel praised the students for their thorough work.
In Benicia, some businesses — including the local supermarkets and hardware stores — sell reusable shopping bags. So do several local organizations. Benicia Main Street sells sturdy canvas bags at its office at 90 First St., as well as at the Farmers Market every Thursday. The bags are $10 for one without the Farmers Market logo and $15 with the logo.
Benicia Chamber of Commerce’s Shop Benicia First has been promoted through free blue fabric shopping bags. And during Earth Day, Benicia gave away sturdy green shopping bags.
In California, all large grocers and other retailers are required through Assembly Bill 2449 to accept and recycle plastic shopping bags. That bill went into effect in 2007. The six-year program also encouraged merchants to sell reusable bags.
Despite the encouragement of reusable bags, plastic ones are still a major headache for Allied Waste, said Jennifer Brennan, recycling coordinator. “It’s an extremely significant problem,” she said.
First, they’re difficult and costly to recycle. They get tangled in recycling machines, and the machinery must be shut down so they can be removed. It costs about $1,000 in labor to recycle a ton of bags, she said, “and there’s hardly any market for them.”
Another problem arises when consumers use plastic bags as trash can liners and fill them with garbage, Brennan said. When the bags enter the landfill, they won’t biodegrade; instead, when trucks drive over them, they become separated from other trash, and they take to the air, she said.
Benicia trash is carted to Keller Canyon Landfill in Pittsburg, which is surrounded by four rows of fencing reaching from 8 to 12 feet into the air. The site is windy, and loose plastic bags blow over the fences. “We have 25 people picking up trash,” Brennan said, “and 98 percent of it is bags.”
She is concerned that the used bags accepted by retailers aren’t being recycled safely. “I’ve approached stores. They tell me they haul the bags to their headquarters because it’s easier for the recycler to pick up. But I’ve never seen proof it’s happening.”
Banning only plastic bags may not be the city’s best approach, she said. Paper bags have their own environmental costs, requiring far more energy to make and recycle than plastic bags, and they produce more carbon dioxide and generate more water pollutants than plastic bags in their production.
“The only way to go is cloth bags,” Brennan said, urging shoppers to buy “cloth bags made in this country” to reduce concerns about other countries’ labor conditions and of pollution caused by importing bags into the U.S.
Residents don’t need to line trash cans with plastic, she reminded, and they can use such alternatives as cereal box liners, merchandise packaging, buckets or newspaper bags to clean up after their pets. “Some people say ‘recycle,’ and I say ‘reduce,’” Brennan said.
She understands consumers’ quandary of paper or plastic, or using a cloth bag that eventually must be cleaned. But she has a quick answer: “We all do laundry. We wash our towels. Throw the bags into the wash,” she said.