LONG BEACH — They’re going to ask the city council to bag it. Single-use plastic bags, that is.
Martha Williams and Larkin Stentz want Long Beach leaders to ban plastic shopping bags in the city. They plan to make their pitch at city hall during the council’s next meeting at 7 p.m. on Aug. 7.
Williams, a retired elementary school teacher, brought her new, Al Gore-approved lessons back to Long Beach after she attended the former vice president’s environmental education and activism program in Denver last March. She’s now working on projects in her community to curb the effects of climate change.
Stentz, owner of Green Angel Gardens, is campaigning with Williams against single-use plastic bags.
“We were trying to narrow it down to something doable,” Stentz said, so they decided to ask the city council to ban the bags by a certain date that has yet to be determined.
Decades of throwaway lifestyles have created the Great Pacific garbage patch, a massive expanse of floating plastics and trash in the North Pacific Ocean. By conservative estimates, it’s thought to be at least the size of Texas, although it’s almost impossible to accurately measure the vast and ever-shifting trash vortex. It spans the Pacific from the West Coast of North America to Japan.
Because plastic bags don’t break down easily, they tend to stick around, ripping into smaller and smaller pieces over time. The ocean water near the garbage patch is often described as “plastic soup,” because it’s littered with confetti-sized particles.
An average of 46,000 tiny pieces of plastic are floating on every square mile of the world’s oceans, according to a United Nations environment program.
Fish can’t tell the difference between the tiny plastic particles and food. So they end up eating the plastic. Another marine animal comes along later and eats the fish and the plastic inside it. The process repeats all the way up the food chain.
A gray whale died in 2010 on a West Seattle beach, with a large amount of garbage in its stomach. The whale had ingested plastic bags, surgical gloves and numerous other products discarded by people.
Not only are plastic bags a hazard to marine life, sea birds and animals, they also pile up in landfills and clog storm drains.
“One of the things we’re both realizing is we can get overwhelmed with data,” Stentz said. “We want to bring it down to the local level.”
Because of the adverse effect plastics have on the ocean, he and Williams said Long Beach seemed well-suited to lead rural and coastal Washington in finding a better way to help keep water, fish and the food supply healthy.
At least one county and 13 Washington cities, mostly around Puget Sound and along the Interstate-5 corridor from Bellingham to Olympia, have restricted merchants’ use of plastic bags, according to the nonprofit Municipal Research Service Center.
Each ban is a little different. Some require retailers to carry only recycled or reusable paper bags, while others allow certain types of plastic. Many require retailers to charge customers a minimum fee for each bag, others don’t.
Chuck Winn, manager of Sid’s Market in Seaview, said he doesn’t want to see more cities ban plastic bags. For more environmentally-conscientious customers, the grocer sells reusable shopping bags and provides paper bags.
“In the old days, all we had was paper,” Winn, 73, said. “In fact, we have some folks who still request paper.”
The Seaview market takes used bags and single-use plastics from anyone willing to return them for recycling. People can put their used plastic bags, wraps and films into the big recycling bin in the store parking lot on Pacific Highway. The bags are then taken to a Tacoma warehouse to be recycled, Winn said. He said wasn’t sure what becomes of the recycled bags from Seaview.
The warehouse did not return a call for comment. However, in the U.S. they’re often melted down and used for composite lumber. They’re also commonly made into a new batch of bags that can later be recycled. Making bags from recycled material is more efficient and eco-friendly than making them from scratch.
Williams said she’d prefer not to have paper bags either. She wants Long Beach to move towards using reusable bags. She and Stentz hope the city council will put together a group to look into what Long Beach could do to reduce its use of plastics. The group could then help the council with rules to put in place to move closer to that goal.
“We’re joining in with a mass movement around the United States,” Williams said. “Cities around the country are saying ‘enough is enough.’”