By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

California stands ready to be the first state to ban disposable plastic bags, a move that supporters say would help staunch plastic waste on land and in the ocean.

The Bag Monster, festooned in 500 plastic bags, will ride in San Francisco next week.

The measure, AB 1998, has passed in the Assembly, but needs to pass the Senate and come to a full floor vote this month to pass. It would forbid groceries, pharmacies, drug stores and other similar businesses from using disposable plastic bags.

An array of groups are supporting “Ban the Bag”, such as the Sierra Club, Heal the Bay and OCEANA. Celebrities such as actors Danny Glover and Tim Robbins, musician Ben Harper, foodie Alice Waters and ocean expert Fabien Cousteau have lent their names and time to the cause.  Several local governments also officially support the ban, including the cities of Burbank, Long Beach, Newport Beach, Pasadena and Los Angeles County.

Ban backers say the billowy, non-biodegradable “urban tumbleweeds” as the Plastic Pollution Coalition calls them, are costly, unnecessary consumer chaff that fills up landfills, contributes to the giant Pacific Gyre and to greenhouse gases. The bags are made from polyethylene, a petroleum product.

Plastic bags are a big pollution problem, ban supporters say, because they don’t go away.

“Plastic is a material that the Earth cannot digest,’’ reports the PlasticPollutionCoalition, which is helping leading the public stampede against the bags. “Every bit of plastic that has ever been created still exists, except the small amount that has been incinerated, and has become toxic air and particulate pollution.”

Opponents of Ban the Bag include the American Chemistry Council and American Forest & Paper Association, as well as some local Chambers of Commerce (though not the San Francisco Chamber, which supports the ban). These groups are lobbying against the measure on the grounds that it would hurt suppliers or users economically.

Ban opponents argue that plastic bags can be recycled. But the Plastic Pollution Coalition counters that 93 percent of U.S. plastics are not recovered for recycling, according to EPA statistics. The group also points out that even recycling ends somewhere, with plastic products that may be second or third generation, but will persist in the environment.

Arguments have been floated by ban opponents that plastic bags are a cheap product that can help people in economic straits. The Plastic Pollution Coalition, though, argues that plastic pollution is a burden on the poor.

“In most parts of the world people struggle to build basic infrastructures such as schools and hospitals, and  advanced waste management systems  are beyond their reach. As a result, most of the developing nations in Asia, Latin America and Africa and literally drowning in plastic waste,” reports the PPC on its “Common Misconceptions” report.

Californians Against Waste, which is tracking the bill on for proponents, argues that the costs of plastic bags, from production to disposal, are a burden to everyone.

Ban proponent groups — Californians Against Waste and Plastic Pollution Coalition — believe the measure has a strong chance of passage.

“AB 1998 is the best chance we’ve had in years to reduce plastic bag litter because it has the support of the grocery stores and we know that the Governor’s office wants a solution this year,” says Brian Early, a spokesman for CAW. “The bill would eliminate the distribution of approximately 19 billion single-use plastic bags in California annually.”

Businesses are getting involved in the debate, too, as it quickens in California. Perhaps the mostly visually arresting argument against plastic bags will be made by the ChicoBag Company, a producer of reusable bags, as it unleashes the “Bag Monster” on the world at a PR stunt on Aug. 12 in San Francisco.

Timed to put pressure on the California legislators who could vote on the ban late next week, the demonstration will feature 100 volunteers wearing costumes created from 500 disposable plastic bags – the amount said to be an average used by each American in a year.

Andy Keller, president of ChicoBag and inventor of the bag monster costumes, will lead the march in the area of, and culminating at, Ghirardelli Square. (Chico Bags are made from recycled PET plastic, which is obtained from recycled plastic bottles.)

Afterward, Keller will embark on a 15 city national tour to raise awareness about plastic bags. The events will be chronicled on his Bag Monster blog.

Chico Bags, the corporate sponsor of the bag monsters, hope the demonstrations will leave Americans with an image of disposable bag excess, saying in a news release:

“Keller and 99 other bag monsters hope that Californians – and the country – will take notice and step up to make a difference in their cities, even through actions as simple as using their own reusable bags and opting out of plastic.”

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