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Who Won When We Banned Plastic Bags?


Who Won when we
Banned Plastic Bags?

By Keary and Sally Sorenson

I am not a Nazi*, neither is my wife, nor as far as I know are any of the people who have worked for 7 years to get Single-Use Plastic Bags banned in Sonoma County. 

We are Beach Watch. This is a program brought forth by the Gulf of the Farralones National Marine Sanctuary. We are the monitors for our coast; we look for and record living and dead animals on our beaches. We are also the volunteer coordinators for debris cleanup for the Sonoma Coast State Park and the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods

The first Saturday of each month we do a cleanup on Salmon Creek Beach. We look for, study and record the debris that washes up on our coast, and have done so for the last 20 years. These are some of the facts we have discovered:

Over 50% of the plastic in our water (there is approx. 48,000 visible pieces of plastic per square mile) is storm drain driven. It is litter. Anything that is red, white, blue, green, or grey is going to be eaten. Birds are visual feeders; squid, when excited are red, at rest or dead are white or grey, and in sexual heat are more green. 

bus plastic looks like Valalla-ValallaThere is another animal out there called a Velalla Velalla. It’s small, less than 3 inches, round and blue. Plastic bags that have these colors are instant food. 

We don’t find whole bags on our beaches, virtually every bag we find has been shredded. This consumed plastic eventually re-enters the ocean environment as micro plastic (there is approx. 650k nonvisible pieces of plastic per square mile along the CA coast.). 

All of this plastic releases sulfur and petro-chemicals. Sulfur, when mixed with salt water, produces Sulfuric Acid. This acid dissolves Calcium Carbonate, from which all seashells are made. The petro-chemicals have entered our food chain through several different ways. (To get a real clue, Google “what plastic is made of” and then Google each chemicals effect on humans.)

Dark plastic bags have a life of their own. Not being bird attractive, they eventually sink, then they become darker than the surrounding water and give off the same signal that squid do. This is when they become attractive to marine mammals i.e. whales, dolphins and porpoises. 

Whether on the surface or submerged, plastic bags attract leather back turtles, the only warm blooded reptile in the ocean. Carcasses of these critically endangered animals have been found with over 40lbs of plastic bags in its digestive tract. These bags will hang up on baleen as well.

Benefits of the Ban

When San Jose banned the bag, the amount of plastic being ejected into the bay by the Guadalupe River was reduced by 10%. It is these facts that producers of plastics can’t deny or defend against. 

All of this plastic in the ocean lessens life expectancy and kills marine animals. This is bad enough, but if you couple the effects of plastics with global warming, you get massive die offs. 

When we should get storms and don’t, the upwelling along our coast stops and all of the nutrients sink below the level that small animals can dive to. This induces massive die-offs. Over the last 10 years we have experienced a die-of of a different animal species every year. 

bird from Midway Island filled with plastic piecesIn 2004, 1.5 million Brandt’s Cormorants took off from Baja, heading for Alaska. Only 250,000 made it. The rest starved to death along the way. We who do beach watch counted these emaciated little bodies. 

On Salmon Creek Beach we recorded over 200 in one day. As these animals deteriorated, the beach was littered with consumed plastic (by weight, 90% of stomach content was plastic). 

In 2008 it was baby sea lions turn to starve to death. We had thousands go through our hands. Along the Sonoma/Marin coast we lost an average of 20 babies every day from May through August and 10 per day from August through October. 

On Pillar Point Beach, the place where the Mavericks surfing contest is held, we had to pile these babies up to keep from counting them twice. We had a pile as long as a school bus and just as wide. This is what global warming is, it’s massive piles of dead animals all along our coast. 

In 2010 it was our specific turn. The warm water induced Dinoflagellates to settle into our coast. It released a neurotoxin that killed, from 50ft deep to the surface, every chiton, sea star, urchin and abalone inside of the Sonoma Coast State Park. The one single thread in all of this is an ocean that is warming. This year it’s mole crabs, millions of them. 

Dead Mole Crabs by the thousands along our local beachMole crabs (sand crabs) are what shore birds eat. On the first Saturday in September on Salmon Creek Beach, we should have seen thousands of shore birds, there were none. Another migration, another species, which one next year?

Good News among Bad News

But it’s not bad news for all animals. In monitoring our coast, Beach Watch has, for the last 3 years, been finding animals never found north of San Luis Obispo before, not even in the fossil records. It’s always been too cold. These animals are breeding here. That says this change is permanent and, given the fact that the ocean drives our weather, the current atmospheric conditions we are experience is not a drought, since droughts have an end.

Some call us Nazis, which we are not. We are extreme environmentalists. When we find a debris-downed animal, are we concerned about millions of people being inconvenienced? You call us “brown shirts” for taking your rights away. To this, we say that the choice people have been making has taken and continues to take the right of life from millions of animals.

As for the 10 cent surcharge for paper bags (it is not a tax since you don’t have to pay it), does anyone think for a second that the stores you shop in just give all those millions of plastic bags away each year?

To pass this ordinance, we used the prescribed method put forth by our constitution. Meetings were well announced, if you were not there to have your voice heard, the fault is your own, not the elected officials or us who pushed for it.

In the end, who wins? 

N.O.A.A. marine debris has found that people tend not to come back to beaches that have dead animals or trash on them. The docents along our coast have found that the majority of the 4 million visitors to our park every year come from the Central Valley. These people spend money all the way to the beach and back home again. 

So who wins? Next spring, go out to the mouth of our Russian River, have a look at the life around you. When you reduce the amount of pollution coming out of the river by passing a ban on plastic bags and living a healthier way of life, who wins?

In 2016, if the plastic bag manufacturers are successful in overturning our statewide ban, who will have won then?


* Letter to the editor in October editon reference