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Photo credit: EPA / Mike Nelson

Kenya Joins Growing Fight Against Plastic Pollution

Kenya just became the latest country to ban plastic bags. According to Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu, "The ministry has banned the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging."

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Microplastics in Oceans Outnumber Stars in Our Galaxy by 500 Times

The United Nations is "declaring war" on the biggest sources of planetary pollution—ocean plastic. On Thursday, the intergovernmental organization's environment program (UNEP) launched its #CleanSeas campaign at the World Ocean Summit hosted by The Economist in Bali, Indonesia.

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Whale Found With 30+ Plastic Bags in Its Stomach

Norwegian zoologists have discovered some 30 plastic bags and other marine debris inside the stomach of a malnourished 20-foot Cuvier's beaked whale.

The whale was an adult male that weighed about 2 tons. Local authorities were forced to euthanize the distressed animal on Jan. 28 after repeatedly stranding itself off the shallow waters of Sotra, an island near Norway's southwestern coast.

After it was put down, University of Bergen researchers analyzed the whale's stomach and determined that the various non-biodegradable objects were likely the cause of death.

"Our whale was emaciated; little fat and low weight. But its stomach was full of plastic, which likely killed it," University of Bergen associate professor Hanneke Meijer tweeted.

According to NRK, large quantities of small plastic as well as candy wrappers and plastic bread bags were found in addition to the 30 plastic bags. The items had packaging and labels in Danish and English.

University of Bergen associate professor Terje Lislevand told the Associated Press that the whale's intestine "had no food, only some remnants of a squid's head in addition to a thin fat layer."

Lislevand also told Norwegian publication Bergens Tidende that the whale was likely in pain due to its clogged stomach.

"The plastic was like a big ball in the stomach and filled it almost completely," he said.

The whale might have mistakenly ingested the plastic bags thinking it was squid, its preferred source of food.

Lislevand remarked that the animal was one of the first Cuvier's beaked whales to be spotted near Norway.

EcoWatch has documented many instances of whales suffering and even dying because of plastic waste. But ocean plastic is not just a problem for whales. Fish, seabirds, turtles and many other marine creatures are choking from the 8 million metric tons of plastic garbage that enters our oceans every year.

Unfortunately, if consumers do not reduce their use of plastic and plastic-intensive goods, the problem will only get worse. A widely reported study found that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 if the world continues to consume and dump this form of non-biodegradable waste at current rates.

Politics

New York Senate Votes to Stop NYC's Plastic Bag Fee

New York's Republican-controlled State Senate voted 42-18 Tuesday in favor of a measure that would kill New York City's five-cent fee for carryout bags.

"Many families have a hard time just getting by, paying for groceries, rent and heat," Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn), who introduced the bill, said before Tuesday's vote.

As the Gothamist noted, Felder's bill took specific aim at New York City, as it would "prohibit bag taxes or fees in cities with a population of 1 million or more." The Big Apple is the only city in the state with 1 million people.

After two years of heated debate, the city council voted 28-20 in May to impose a small fee for each plastic, paper or cloth carryout bag provided by retail and wholesale stores. The Carryout Bag Law, slated to take effect Feb. 15, is aimed at "[reducing] the amount of waste we send to landfills, and will also help keep bags out of our trees, streets and oceans." New York City shoppers were encouraged to bring their own reusable bag to stores instead.

People on the supplemental nutrition assistance (SNAP), aka "food stamp," program do not have to pay the fee, as stores will provide carryout bags for these customers free of charge.

According to the New York League of Conservation Voters, the city spends more than $12 million each year sending 10 billion plastic bags to landfills. The organization argues that the bill would save taxpayers millions of dollars while also cutting bag litter in the streets, parks, waterways and landfills.

Raul A. Contreras, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, defended the fee. He told the New York Times that similar laws already exist in more than 200 municipalities in 18 states across the country.

"This is the type of progressive and environmentally conscious action that helps create a more sustainable city," Contreras told the newspaper via email. "We are going to continue to work with our partners in the city council and Albany on implementation of this legislation."

Democratic Senators also argued that the Senate should not overrule the city council's wishes.

"This is the nullification of the wishes of a legislative body representing 8.5 million people," Sen. Brad Hoylman, (D-Manhattan) told the New York Daily News, adding the Senate measure was "breathtakingly arrogant."

"I understand that people don't want to pay the fee. But a much easier way to avoid the fee than pre-empting our law is just to bring a reusable bag," Democrat Councilman Brad Lander told the Times. "It's just not that hard."

However, the American Progressive Bag Alliance said in a statement that the fee would "disproportionately impact those who can least afford it—without providing any meaningful benefit to the environment or New Yorkers."

The measure now heads to the Democrat-controlled Assembly. If the measure is approved by both chambers, Democratic Gov. Cuomo could sign it into law.

"If the Legislature passes a bill, we will review it," Cuomo's spokesman, Frank Sobrino, told the Times. The governor's position on the measure is currently unclear.

In recent years, carryout bag legislation in the form of bans or taxes has taken center stage in many cities and even entire states. While states like California have legislated against these single-use items, a growing number of states are spearheading bans on bag bans.

Last month, Michigan passed a law making it illegal for local governments to enact ordinances that ban or place fees on plastic bags or disposable containers used by stores and restaurants. Other states that have banned local plastic bag ordinances include Wisconsin, Idaho, Florida and Arizona.

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Politics

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?

Heal the Bay's very own James Alamillo wearing a "bag monster" costume featuring 500 plastic bags—the number of bags thrown away by each Californian, each year, before efforts to ban plastic bags began.

We Were Massively Outspent, But Had Broader Support

Five out-of-state plastic bag makers spent more than $6 million on the campaign to repeal the ban. Whereas as the campaign to ban plastic bags had a meagre budget of $1.9 million.

"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.

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

Statewide bans are now in the offing in Oregon and New Hampshire, and a state representative in North Carolina said he is planning to introduce legislation modeled on California proposition.

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.

Matt Davis is the California communications director for Clean Water Action. He can be reached at mattdavis@cleanwater.org.

San Diego Bans Plastic Bags

The San Diego City Council voted Tuesday to ban single-use plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies and corner markets.

The goal of the new ordinance is to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags, decreasing the number of plastic checkout bags used every year. San Diego goest through roughly 700 million plastic bags a year, with only 3 percent of them being recycled, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

"The vast majority of plastic bags we see are entangled in the brushes next to our rivers and streams," said Kristin Kuhn, community engagement manager for San Diego Coastkeeper. "After every rain event, these bags clog and choke our city's already damaged waterways."

The city's ban would require grocery stores and other food retailers to charge at least 10 cents for each paper bag or for a sturdier bag, which often cost more.

"Stakeholders have worked tirelessly with local jurisdictions throughout the state to find a solution that makes sense for both the environment and businesses," said Sophie Barnhorst, policy coordinator for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. "A ban on plastic and a charge for paper has the potential to achieve maximal environment gain with minimal business disruption."

San Diego's ban—which drew wide support from advocacy organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation's San Diego County chapter and San Diego Coastkeeper as well as the chamber of commerce—makes it the 150th municipality in the Golden State.

A second reading of the ordinance will happen in a few weeks. Large food stores will have six months to comply with the ordinance while smaller drug and convenience stores will have approximately a year.

San Diego has distributed about 40,000 reusable shopping bags to mainly low-income neighborhoods, food banks, schools and libraries to help prepare residents for the ordinance.

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Plastic Bag Bans Spread Across U.S.

Los Angeles rang in the 2014 New Year with a ban on the distribution of plastic bags at the checkout counter of big retailers, making it the largest of the 132 cities and counties around the U.S. with anti-plastic bag legislation. And a movement that gained momentum in California is going national. More than 20 million Americans live in communities with plastic bag bans or fees. Currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day. Laid end-to-end, they could circle the equator 1,330 times. But this number will soon fall as more communities, including large cities like New York and Chicago, look for ways to reduce the plastic litter that blights landscapes and clogs up sewers and streams.

While now ubiquitous, the plastic bag has a relatively short history. Invented in Sweden in 1962, the single-use plastic shopping bag was first popularized by Mobil Oil in the 1970s in an attempt to increase its market for polyethylene, a fossil-fuel-derived compound. Many American customers disliked the plastic bag when it was introduced in 1976, disgusted by the checkout clerks having to lick their fingers when pulling the bags from the rack and infuriated when a bag full of groceries would break or spill over. But retailers continued to push for plastic because it was cheaper and took up less space than paper, and now a generation of people can hardly conceive of shopping without being offered a plastic bag at the checkout counter.

The popularity of plastic grocery bags stems from their light weight and their perceived low cost, but it is these very qualities that make them unpleasant, difficult and expensive to manage. More than one third of all plastic production is for packaging, designed for short-term use. Plastic bags are made from natural gas or petroleum that formed over millions of years, yet they are often used for mere minutes before being discarded to make their way to a dump or incinerator—if they don’t blow away and end up as litter first. The amount of energy required to make 12 plastic bags could drive a car for a mile.

In landfills and waterways, plastic is persistent, lasting for hundreds of years, breaking into smaller pieces and leaching out chemical components as it ages, but never fully disappearing. Animals that confuse plastic bags with food can end up entangled, injured or dead. Recent studies have shown that plastic from discarded bags actually soaks up additional pollutants like pesticides and industrial waste that are in the ocean and delivers them in large doses to sea life. The harmful substances then can move up the food chain to the food people eat. Plastics and the various additives that they contain have been tied to a number of human health concerns, including disruption of the endocrine and reproductive systems, infertility and a possible link to some cancers.

California—with its long coastline and abundant beaches where plastic trash is all too common—has been the epicenter of the U.S. movement against plastic bags. San Francisco was the first American city to regulate their use, starting with a ban on non-compostable plastic bags from large supermarkets and chain pharmacies in 2007. As part of its overall strategy to reach “zero waste” by 2020 (the city now diverts 80 percent of its trash to recyclers or composters instead of landfills), it extended the plastic bag ban to other stores and restaurants in 2012 and 2013. Recipients of recycled paper or compostable bags are charged at least 10ȼ, but—as is common in cities with plastic bag bans—bags for produce or other bulk items are still allowed at no cost. San Francisco also is one of a number of Californian cities banning the use of polystyrene (commonly referred to as Styrofoam) food containers, and it has gone a step further against disposable plastic packaging by banning sales of water in plastic bottles in city property.

All told, plastic bag bans cover one-third of California’s population. Plastic bag purchases by retailers have reportedly fallen from 107 million pounds in 2008 to 62 million pounds in 2012, and bag producers and plastics manufacturers have taken note. Most of the ordinances have faced lawsuits from plastics industry groups like the American Chemistry Council. Even though the laws have largely held up in the courts, the threat of legal action has deterred additional communities from taking action and delayed the process for others.

Ironically, were it not for the intervention of the plastics industry in the first place, California would likely have far fewer outright plastic bag bans. Instead, more communities might have opted for charging a fee per bag, but this option was prohibited as part of industry-supported state-wide legislation in 2006 requiring Californian grocery stores to institute plastic bag recycling programs. Since a first attempt in 2010, California has come close to introducing a statewide ban on plastic bags, but well-funded industry lobbyists have gotten in the way. A new bill will likely go up for a vote in 2014 with the support of the California Grocers Association as well as state senators who had opposed an earlier iteration.

Seattle’s story is similar. In 2008 the city council passed legislation requiring groceries, convenience stores and pharmacies to charge 20ȼ for each one-time-use bag handed out at the cash register. A $1.4 million campaign headed by the American Chemistry Council stopped the measure via a ballot initiative before it went into effect, and voters rejected the ordinance in Aug. 2009. But the city did not give up. In 2012 it banned plastic bags and added a 5ȼ fee for paper bags. Attempts to gather signatures to repeal this have been unsuccessful. Eleven other Washington jurisdictions have also banned plastic bags, including the state capital, Olympia.

A number of state governments have entertained proposals for anti-plastic bag legislation, but not one has successfully applied a statewide charge or banned the bags. Hawaii has a virtual state prohibition, as its four populated counties have gotten rid of plastic bags at grocery checkouts, with the last one beginning enforcement in July 2015. Florida, another state renowned for its beaches, legally preempts cities from enacting anti-bag legislation. The latest attempt to remove this barrier was scrapped in April 2014, although state lawmakers say they will revisit the proposal later in the year.

Opposition to plastic bags has emerged in Texas, despite the state accounting for 44 percent of the U.S. plastics market and serving as the home to several important bag manufacturers, including Superbag, one of America’s largest. Eight cities and towns in the state have active plastic bag bans, and others, like San Antonio, have considered jumping on the bandwagon. Austin banned plastic bags in 2013, hoping to reduce the more than $2,300 it was spending each day to deal with plastic bag trash and litter. The smaller cities of Fort Stockton and Kermit banned plastic bags in 2011 and 2013, respectively, after ranchers complained that cattle had died from ingesting them. Plastic bags have also been known to contaminate cotton fields, getting caught up in balers and harming the quality of the final product. Plastic pollution in the Trinity River Basin, which provides water to over half of all Texans, was a compelling reason for Dallas to pass a 5ȼ fee on plastic bags that will go into effect in 2015.

Washington, D.C., was the first U.S. city to require food and alcohol retailers to charge customers 5ȼ for each plastic or paper bag. Part of the revenue from this goes to the stores to help them with the costs of implementation, and part is designated for cleanup of the Anacostia River. Most D.C. shoppers now routinely bring their own reusable bags on outings. One survey found that 80 percent of consumers were using fewer bags and that more than 90 percent of businesses viewed the law positively or neutrally.

Montgomery County in Maryland followed Washington's example and passed a 5ȼ charge for bags in 2011. A recent study that compared shoppers in this county with those in neighboring Prince George’s County, where anti-bag legislation has not gone through, found that reusable bags were seven times more popular in Montgomery County stores. When bags became a product rather than a freebie, shoppers thought about whether the product was worth the extra nickel and quickly got into the habit of bringing their own bags.

One strategy of the plastics industry—concerned about declining demand for its products—is an attempt to change public perception of plastic bags by promoting recycling. Recycling, however, is also not a good long-term solution. The vast majority of plastic bags—97 percent or more in some locales—never make it that far. Even when users have good intentions, bags blow out of outdoor collection bins at grocery stores or off of recycling trucks. The bags that reach recycling facilities are the bane of the programs: when mixed in with other recyclables they jam and damage sorting machines, which are very costly to repair. In San Jose, CA, where fewer than four percent of plastic bags are recycled, repairs to bag-jammed equipment cost the city about $1 million a year before the plastic bag ban went into effect in 2012.

Proposed plastic bag restrictions have been shelved in a number of jurisdictions, including New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago, in favor of bag recycling programs. New York City may, however, move ahead with a bill proposed in March 2014 to place a city-wide 10ȼ fee on single-use bags. Chicago is weighing a plastic bag ban.

In their less than 60 years of existence, plastic bags have had far-reaching effects. Enforcing legislation to limit their use challenges the throwaway consumerism that has become pervasive in a world of artificially cheap energy. As U.S. natural gas production has surged and prices have fallen, the plastics industry is looking to ramp up domestic production. Yet using this fossil fuel endowment to make something so short-lived, which can blow away at the slightest breeze and pollutes indefinitely, is illogical—particularly when there is a ready alternative: the reusable bag.

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Health

Does Your Facial Scrub Harm Marine Life?

Microplastics ingested by marine worms are transferring toxic chemicals into their systems, having destructive consequences for ocean biodiversity, a new study has found.

A study published Dec. 2 in the journal Current Biology is the latest to warn of the ecological hazards of tiny grains of plastic known as microplastics, millions of tons of which pollute streams and oceans.

Microplastics are suspected to come from several sources. One is plastic beads used in facial scrubs or cosmetics. Microplastics also come from the breakdown of larger plastic materials, such as shopping bags, or the shedding of synthetic fibers from textiles by clothes washing.

The abundance and global distribution of microplastics in the oceans has steadily increased over the last few decades with rising plastic consumption worldwide. The study found that microplastics are threatening lugworms that comprise around 32 percent of the biomass along a shore.

When so-called "eco-engineer" lugworms consume microplastics, they absorb toxic chemicals that disrupt the worms' biological functions. It becomes difficult for the worms to eat organic matter such as silt, which in turn "changes the whole assemblage of animals that live around it," the study found.

"We are losing a large volume of plastic and we know it is going into the environment and the assumption being made by policymakers is that this material is nonhazardous, it has got the same ranking as scraps of food," Mark Browne, an ecologist from the U.S.-based National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, told the BBC.

Though microplastics are the most plentiful type of solid-waste pollution on earth, they are not considered hazardous under U.S. law.

Marine life other than lugworms also consume these microplastics, which absorbs chemical pollutants such as antimicrobials including triclosan and dyes. Pollutants from microplastics were found to accumulate at higher concentrations in the lugworms' intestines than pollutants from sand.

"For more than 40 years the bit that the scientists and policymakers didn't have was whether these particles of plastic can actually transfer chemicals into wildlife and damage the health of the organism and its ability to sustain biodiversity," Browne said. " That's what we really nailed with the study."

Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH page for more related news on this topic.

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