Los Angeles City Council expected to ban plastic bags, improve marine health

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Hermit Crab in Plastic Shell

Think of all the jobs we’d create here in California if everyone were allowed to have their own nuclear bomb. My neighbor Phil might even think twice before blowing all his leaves over on my yard if he suspected I had the power to send him and his leaf blower to another dimension.

Everyone would want one, and the manufacturing jobs with great benefits would bless this Golden State. What? Too dangerous? But what about the jobs?

This is the major complaint the Los Angeles City Council is facing as it prepares to vote May 23 on whether to phase out the use of plastic and paper bags at supermarkets.

While Los Angeles has turned out plenty a blockbuster based on our fear of nuclear war, I doubt Hollywood investors are rushing to get their hands on a script starring plastic bags as a threat to humanity.

Despite the bag’s hypothetical flop at the theater, the city council’s Energy and Environment Committee understands how plastic poses a significant hazard to the health of sea life, the oceans and consequently our own well being.

The most dangerous aspect of the assault plastics – and in large part plastic bags – is having on our planet is its invisibility. The spectacle of a nuclear bomb keeps us all focused on passing strict worldwide regulations on the weapons, all the while all of our single-use plastics are making their way via waterways to our oceans where they break down into smaller and smaller particles turning 71 percent of our planet into a virtual plastic soup.

Of course not all the trash we donate to the ocean is plastic, but current research clearly shows that plastics make up between 60 and 80 percent of our junk.

According to Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay, Californians use 19 billion plastic bags every year. A statewide measure to ban plastic bags in 2010 was defeated in the Senate, giving Hawaii bragging rights for becoming the first state in the nation to ban the insanity of manufacturing a single-use item that persists as poison in our environment for almost ever.

The bag ban failed thanks to an assault by the American Chemistry Council which hired lobbyists and paid for TV and radio spots vilifying the bill as attacking the jobs of plastic bag manufacturing companies and the working poor who can’t afford to buy reusable bags to bring home their groceries.

If those groceries included seafood, the working poor might have more of a problem paying for the potential health effects of eating sea animals who have been stewing in a range of toxic chemicals released by all the plastic in the water than the couple of bucks a reusable bag costs.

A 2011 report, Marine Debris as a Global Environmental Problem, discusses the havoc plastics are wreaking on the marine environment. Tiny pieces of plastic, called microplastics, that have broken down in the ocean have been found to be six times more abundant than zooplankton in some areas. Zooplankton is the bread and butter of the marine ecosystem.

Studies are still out on whether the toxins ingested at the bottom of the food chain can make their way up, but we already know mercury in fish can have serious health effects on humans. It doesn’t take much common sense to suppose that other toxins can do the same.

People can just stop eating seafood, but unfortunately the animals that live in our oceans don’t have such an easy way out. The report documents more than 260 species that are already known to die from entanglement and ingestion.

The 5 Gyres Project reports that 44 percent of all sea bird species, 22 percent of Cetaceans, all species of sea turtles, and a growing list of fish species have been documented to have consumed large amounts of plastic. These animals mistake plastic for food, leading to internal blockages, dehydration, starvation and death.

In World’s Oceans Face Plastic Pollution Problem, PBS Newshour investigated how flooding the ocean with our unwanted plastic has brought with it an annual death toll of at least one million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals.

Add this to an ocean already overstressed by acidification, over fishing, hypoxia, global warming and all of the other trash we don’t want fouling our cities and we’ve got a recipe for disaster on a nuclear scale. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are “either fully exploited, overexploited, or have collapsed.” Take into account that marine fish provide 15 percent of animal protein consumed by humans.

Science is well aware that many crucial ecological services depend on the marine environment. This is why many beach cities in California are taking it upon themselves to ban plastic bags as a first assault against ocean pollution.

Manhattan Beach recently enacted its ban after winning a lawsuit brought by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, which represents plastic bag manufacturers. San Francisco was the first city in the nation to enact its ban, and two-thirds of the 74 city ordinances banning plastic bags are in California.

TheAmerican Chemistry Council is working hard to kill the Los Angeles City bill. It totes the beauty of recycling as the solution to the plastic problem. Somehow these people can keep a straight face even though we know of the115 billion plastic bags manufactured in the United States in 2010, less than 5 percent of those were recycled.

The pleas by Crown Poly employees, a plastic bag manufacturer, to the Los Angeles City Council are compelling. No one wants to see people losing their jobs and health care. We should be supporting these people and training them in new fields. But new jobs can be found and created. Sea life has no other option. The health of our oceans says a lot about the health of our world, our only home.

Hollywood might like to focus on the spectacle of a nuclear bomb to scare people, but hopefully the Los Angeles City Council will realize the real danger of plastic bags and ban us from choosing convenience over the health of our world.