How California Became America’s First State to Ban Plastic Bags
By Matt Davis
California's environmental protections are not for sale. That's the message California voters sent to out-of-state plastic bag manufacturers when they upheld Proposition 67 by 53 to 47 percent in November. But how did the Golden State manage to win a state-wide bag ban against a national political backdrop that went the other way?
We Were Massively Outspent, But Had Broader Support
"Rarely in California history do local organizations running a shoestring campaign beat out-of-state deep pockets," said Dan Jacobson, with Environment California, who spent weeks in the run-up to the election driving around the state with an enormous inflatable turtle, aiming to draw voters' attention to the risks plastic bags pose to wildlife.
Save the Plastic Bag Ban Campaign brought their inflated Turtle mascot on UC Berkeley campus to raise awareness about Prop 67 and the ban of single use plastic bags in California.Khaled Sayed
The bag-makers' campaign had just four contributors. The campaign to ban plastic bags was backed by more than 500 organizations, from environmental groups to business organizations and dozens of cities and counties. More than 70 percent of the campaign's funding came from contributions from the environmental community. More than 40 newspapers endorsed the campaign.
"For me personally, as a movement-leader, I was deeply impressed by the energy and organization of this diverse coalition," said Shana DeClercq from The Story of Stuff Project. "Cities, mayors, non-profits large and small, individual advocates all pulled together in a cohesive way."
The Save the Plastic Bag Ban Campaign began at the grassroots level long before the election, said Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš, founder and director of Azul, an organization seeking to raise up Latino voices on marine conservation issues.
"Legislators told us Latinos were either 'too poor to care' or didn't support legislation to ban plastic bags at all," Gutiérrez-Graudiņš said. "We actually knew better and this is where the bag campaign really took off."
Azul enlisted the help of civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, who penned a couple of op-eds on the issue, as well as Jose Hernandez, a very well-known former astronaut who signed an op-ed of his own, stressing the science behind bag bans.
Azul helped to organize a poll, which reached only people of color throughout the state, and showed an overwhelming support of Latinos and African Americans for a plastic bag ban. They ran in-language focus groups in Los Angeles and San Jose to refine messaging.
"We flipped the script, so to speak, where now Latino staff, elected and community leaders saw themselves as trend setters versus followers," Gutiérrez-Graudiņš said.
"I believe it is extremely important to highlight the enthusiastic support from the Latino community for Prop 67," she said.
California Had a Huge Problem on Our Hands
"When Californians become fed up with a problem, we fix it," said Ryan Kallabis, a spokesman for Save Our Shores. "Nothing that is used for less than five minutes should pollute our environment for centuries."
And yet, plastic pollution was posing a huge problem for the world's sixth-largest economy. California Sec. of State Alex Padilla, who introduced SB-270, the legislation that led to the statewide ban, said that three years ago, California retailers were distributing 19 billion single-use plastic shopping bags every year.
"In 2017," he said, "that number will be zero."
In the weeks since the ban passed, an estimated 25 million plastic bags each day will have been eliminated from the waste stream.
We Started Local and It Worked
Plastic bags kill wildlife and pollute our environment. The evidence is overwhelming that banning plastic bags in local jurisdictions save wildlife and reduce pollution. At the time of the election, more than 40 percent of California communities were already living without plastic shopping bags through local ordinance. Those communities didn't want to roll back.
Ironically, the same bag makers behind trying to overturn our statewide ban have been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council to pass statewide bans on local bag bans. They say states should have the right to decide on bans as a whole, but local bans pave the way for state bans like in California, and are crucially important.
These 6 States Want to Ban Plastic Bag Bans (Yes, You Read That Right) https://t.co/pqWMelYDYB @PlasticPollutes https://t.co/fqEtS06qJl— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1459349531.0
We Got Creative and Worked With Our Allies to Spread the Word
"We knew that because we were working with a small budget, the Yes on Prop 67 campaign would be won or lost on the outreach and free media components," said Wendy James, CEO of Better World Group, which chaired the statewide campaign. "We had to rely on our NGO partners. And we had to build a broad coalition. We never turned down a request for a speaking engagement or debate, an opportunity for a letter to the editor or op-ed, and we used our broad base of supporters in a statewide media tour the final month, doing close to 20 news conferences in every media market in the state."
Clean Water Action and our allies at Save The Bay led a loose coalition of Northern California environmental groups in brainstorming creative ways to get out the liberal Bay Area vote. The groups worked closely with Save The Bay and took thousands of plastic bags back to the headquarters of Novolex, the world's biggest plastic bag manufacturer, based in South Carolina, broadcasting the action in partnership with Courage Campaign on Facebook Live.
We worked with a local dance studio to stage a Thriller-themed plastic flash mob, taking over a downtown street in Oakland on the eve of Halloween.
More than 50,000 Californians signed a petition to the CEO of Novolex, Stan Bikulege, following a mass email organized in partnership with the Daily Kos. The Story of Stuff used its extensive global network to pump out our message to plastic pollution activists all over the world, and garner added support.
"The Story of Stuff global community was passionately interested in the outcome here," DeClerq said. "We heard voices all over the world encouraging Californians to stand up against Big Plastic. From Ireland to Buenos Aires to Botswana, people cheered us on."
Celebrities also got involved, said Dianna Cohen with the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Her organization's video of movie star Jeff Bridges was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, drawing precious attention to the issue.
California Took the Lead
At Clean Water Action, we're keen to serve as guides for people considering similar laws around the country. We're also trying to stop waste at its source, by working with businesses and institutions to redesign the way they use single-use disposable packaging with our ReThink Disposable program.
If you'd like to learn more, please get in touch.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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