As plastic bag-bans sweep across California, Ventura County is now joining in the controversial environmental movement.

At the end of July, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to begin the environmental review process for an ordinance banning single-use plastic carryout bags. A week later, the Ventura City Council also voted to move forward with consideration of a citywide ban. The county and city of Ventura will both provide $8,000 from their respective stormwater Total Maximum Daily Loads programs toward the environmental review process.

Ventura County is working with Santa Barbara County on a joint environmental impact report (EIR) under the Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Oceans and Nourishment (BEACON). BEACON is an agency that serves of the coastal cities of Goleta, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Ventura, Oxnard and Port Hueneme, along with Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

Normally, a state court order requires each city to draft a separate environmental impact report, which could cost upward of $60,000, but BEACON is taking a new approach with their regional EIR. By working together, the counties and their coastal cities will be able to create their joint report at a fraction of the cost.

“Even though other regions have reviewed the impacts of plastic-bag bans, there hasn’t been an environmental impact report done for Ventura or Santa Barbara County yet. We can’t just use one that’s statewide. It has to be more specific to our area, with the number of stores and geography included,” explained Brian Brennan, Ventura City Councilmember and executive director for BEACON. “By working together on a joint EIR, Ventura will be saving $55,000 or more.”

If a ban is passed in Ventura County, plastic carryout bags would be prohibited at all stores that sell food or pharmaceuticals. Recyclable paper carryout bags would still be available for a 10-cent charge per bag.

Under the Manhattan Beach decision of the state Supreme Court, upholding the city’s ban of plastic bags, only small cities can proceed with plastic-bag ordinances without first drafting a costly EIR. For this reason, Ojai was able to pass an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags in April, making it the first city in Ventura County to approve the ban. So far, it has had mixed a reception.

“There is a 50-50 response from customers,” said Colleen Miles, an Ojai resident and employee at one of the small local markets. “Everyone likes to reuse the plastic bags for different things, and people don’t want to pay 10 cents for paper bags. Psychologically, I think it would be better to credit people 10 cents for bringing their reusable bags from home.”

 

Photo by: SURFRIDER FOUNDATION

Loads of plastic bags along the coast in nearby Santa Barbara County.

Miles has noticed, however, that people are trying much harder to bring their own bags around town. “I hope plastic-bag bans continue to be passed throughout California,” said Miles. “In fact, I hope we don’t have any paper bags, either. I completely support the banning of both.”

Tori McIntosh, a Vons employee in Ojai, also had strong opinions about the recent ordinance. “It wasn’t hard for me, personally, to adjust to the ban because I’ve already been using reusable bags for four and a half years. But it was hard for a lot of our customers. No one likes to change,” explained McIntosh. “I just tell them they’ve already done this in many cities. If they lived in Europe they wouldn’t even notice a difference. I’m hoping California will get used to reusable bags first, then they can spread throughout the nation. ”

Plastic-bag manufacturers are fighting back by lobbying legislators, stating that plastic bags are only a small fraction of the litter in California and arguing that it is actually a better choice than paper. The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition formed in June 2008 under activist Stephen Joseph, after urging from plastic-bag producers.

Environmentalist groups continue to rally against manufacturers. The Surfrider Foundation, an organization of volunteers dedicated to preserving and enriching the ocean, started a Rise Above Plastics program that fights to raise awareness and reduce plastic pollution by reducing single-use plastics.

“Plastic can break down into smaller particles in the ocean, but it’s still always there in some form. Single-use plastic bags are an unnecessary blight as well as an eyesore,” said Bob Davidson, the Surfrider Foundation’s Ventura County Chapter leader.

Davidson explained that the average shopper accumulates 500 bags per year, with less than 5 percent of those being recycled and made into other products. “Simply because you put it into a recycle bin doesn’t mean that it actually gets recycled,” argued Davidson.

Bill Hickman, coordinator for Surfrider Foundation’s Rise Above Plastics program, agreed with Davidson. “Plastic bag bans are needed to help stop the flow of plastic pollution that is turning our ocean into a plastic soup,” said Hickman. “Disposable plastic checkout bags are just the tip of the plastic pollution iceberg, but there is an easy solution in reusable bags. Recycling is not the answer; we need to pursue meaningful plastic source reductions to make a significant impact on litter.”

Even if a ban is passed in Ventura County, people could still go out and purchase their own plastic bags. Limiting the free distribution of them in grocery stores and drug stores, however, is a crucial first step for solving the plastic bag problem and changing mindsets about disposable plastics.

“The ideal situation is to have a statewide legislation, which is currently in the works and will soon be voted on by the state Senate,” said Davidson. “Right now, we have a patchwork of ordinances in over 50 jurisdictions, but at least that’s a start.”

One group that comes into firsthand contact with harmful plastic litter is the Ventura County Coalition for Coastal and Inland Waterways, a group of city residents and nonprofit agencies that plans the Coastal Cleanup Day events in Ventura County.

Kay Allen, a coordinator for Ventura County’s Coastal Cleanup Day, spoke about the county’s pending plastic-bag ban on behalf of the Coalition: “It is unfortunate that a particular item must be considered for a ban in order to control its negative effects to the environment. But due to their lightweight and flimsy construction, single-use plastic bags are easily transported by air and water into the environment.”

Single-use plastic bags are also very ecologically costly. According to the Coalition, eight million barrels of oil are used to produce the 19 billion plastic bags used each year in California.

The Coalition also has statistics showing that single-use plastic bags are the fourth most common form of trash collected at California Coastal Cleanup events, and the fourth-highest cause of marine entanglement. Since 1998, more than 1.3 million bags have been picked up at their cleanup events, and just last year plastic bags made up 6 percent of the trash collected at Ventura County’s Coastal Cleanup Day.

“It’s important to eliminate plastic bags from our oceans, storm drains and riverbeds,” urged BEACON Executive Director Brennan. “After an EIR is written and certified, we could see ordinances taking effect by early spring of next year.” Ventura County might be the next place to go green.

To find out more about what the Surfrider Foundation is doing, go to www.surfrider.org. For more information on the Ventura County Coalition for Coastal and Inland Waterways and its annual Coastal Cleanup Day, go to www.vccoastcleanup.org.