Friday, October 9 , 2015, 11:56 am | Fair 81º

Wayne Mellinger: The Cat Is Out of the Plastic Bag

Santa Barbara's proposed ordinance should be only the beginning of a Sustainability Revolution, without which civilization as we know it will not survive

By Wayne Mellinger |

The ubiquitous shopping bag, so handy for everything from carrying broccoli and avocados home from the market to disposing of doggie doo, may have become a victim of its own popular success. Although plastic bags did not become widely used until the early 1980s, environmental groups estimate that 500 billion to 1 trillion are now used worldwide each year.

The Santa Barbara City Council is currently considering banning plastic bags. The ordinance, first suggested by Mayor Helene Schneider, would ban plastic bags at any establishment selling food, except restaurants, and impose a 10-cent fee for all paper bags. The intent is to encourage shoppers to use multi-use tote bags instead.

Many communities are wrestling with questions about regulating shopping bags distributed at checkout counters. Other countries, including China and Ireland, and foreign cities, including Mexico City, have adopted bans or taxes in some form on plastic bags.

Plastic bags are mostly made from non-renewable resources, such as natural gas and oil, and are not biodegradable in our lifetimes. Only about 5 to 7 percent get recycled.

And all those bags use up lots of natural resources, take a lot of energy to manufacture, produce a lot of litter, add too much to our landfills and choke marine life.

Disposable shopping bags are a major source of plastic pollution in our oceans, where five massive gyres of “plastic soup” exist. According to Planet Ark, an international environmental group, plastic bags kill about 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and other marine animals each year worldwide.

About 20 percent of U.S. cities and towns have already passed disposable bag reduction laws, including Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, according to Yes! Magazine.

The Santa Barbara ordinance would be part of a regional ban, in which BEACON, the Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Ocean and Nourishment, offered to do the environmental impact report for the area from Point Magu to Point Conception. The City of Carpinteria has already passed a similar ordinance.

Those who have sought to limit the availability of plastic bags have faced powerful industry-financed campaigns, such as that witnessed by the citizens of Seattle awhile back. According to Yes! Magazine, the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing plastics manufacturers, defeated legislation for a statewide ban on single-use bags in California and spent $1.4 million in Seattle in 2007 to defeat a referendum that would have imposed a fee on bags.

Think about it. A plastic bag that we end up using for 30 minutes is helping to destroy the Earth. Humanity is facing what many consider to be an environmental catastrophe — the destruction of the climate that has nurtured life as we know it. All ecological systems on the planet are now in decline.

This small measure is a symbolic step in the right direction, and I believe that our city needs to take much more drastic steps to regain our position as a pioneer in the ecological movement. Let us not forget that when an oil spill happened on the afternoon of Jan. 29, 1969, creating an environmental nightmare for Santa Barbara, the disaster turned out to be a major factor in the birth of the modern-day environmental movement.

That movement blossomed when local communities stood up to corporate industries and demanded that their local ecosystems no longer be ruined by greed.

Now we are faced by the self-inflicted catastrophe of climate change and the destructive elites who control the agencies, and potential regulations are closing off all options for resolving the environmental emergencies. The time has passed for grassroots environmental movements around climate change concerns. The time has passed for mobilizing our neighbors about recycling their cans and bottles.

We are standing on ground that shakes with seismic tension and the very fault lines of our civilization are revealed in the cracks. If we do not engage in a Sustainability Revolution, our civilization will not survive. This is what David Korten and Joanna Macy call “The Great Turning” — the transition from an economy of greed and domination to an economy of life and partnership.

We need to radically rethink more than just how we bring our groceries home; we need to rethink the very foundations of our everyday life. We need to give up our lifestyles based on wasteful consumption and embrace lifestyles of voluntary simplicity. Let us hope that this ordinance is just the beginning.

— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a sociologist teaching at Antioch University Santa Barbara. His blog, “Doing Modernity,” examines how domination and hierarchy are achieved in everyday life.

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» on 05.10.12 @ 09:53 PM

Oh for crying out loud. If you want to be a bare foot unwashed hippy, then be my guest Wayne. But stop trying so damned hard to foist your lunacy on everyone else. I for one am sick and damned tired of the goody two shoes, know it all social engineering crowd thinking “we all must change” and then finding out the only way they can convince people to, is by coercion, a baseball bat or at the point of a gun.

Practice what you preach brother, and if it looks good to us we’ll decide if we want to follow. Otherwise keep your dopy lifestyle crap out of the legislature.

» on 05.11.12 @ 02:43 PM

Here! Here!  This is such a perfect example of one of those small steps that we can take that can lead to a huge shift in our quality of life and the quality of life for our friends in the sea. If SB learned anything from the SB Reads (ing) of Moby Duck, there would be no argument about this ban.  Thanks for highlighting how we are at an important crossroads. 
Dr. Lynn K. Jones, Certified Personal and Executive Coach

» on 05.11.12 @ 08:25 PM

Bishop ANchove, we know that any change shakes the very foundations of the Conservative Church, but this Heretic speaks of a good change. And he lists good reasons for making it.

If you need someone to threaten you with a baseball bat in order to make a good citizen-like change, then maybe the problem is not the Heretic’s.

Also, it has been rumored that your penchant for calling people who disagree with you unwashed bare foot hippies, perverted masterbators, etc., is having an ugly effect on your reputation, which was not so great to start with.

» on 05.12.12 @ 11:44 PM

I don’t disagree with the statistics about plastic bags harming the environment, but you say in your last paragraph to “embrace lifestyles of voluntary simplicity”  which may be great for a lot of people. But what is “voluntary” about the government “banning” plastic bags??

The more government regulates us, the less we are free to make our own decisions. It this what we want?  Can’t we, as an intelligent and free people, effect change without the government passing laws to control every small detail of our lives?

It sounds to me that your philosophy is to “embrace” being told by the government what we should do to live right, and so far the government doesn’t have a very good track record.

» on 05.13.12 @ 02:36 AM

Actually, we are all “the government.” Our duly elected officials simply voice the majority opinions and enact laws. As long as those laws don’t infringe on your rights, which this bag ban does not, you haven’t got much of an argument. It is the will of the majority.

You can’t use freon or trichloroethane or many other harmful substances any more, either. Maybe you complained when they were banned, too.

Too bad.

» on 05.14.12 @ 02:19 PM

Ramjet you lecturing me on my insulting commentary is the pot calling the kettle black.
My point to Wayne was lead by example not with your fascist baseball bat. My God you white, wealthy, elite liberals really do want your little dictatorship don’t you? “We will beat you ignorant masses into shape if we have to! Heil! Heil! Heil!”

Yes the government of Santa Barbara is a reflection of those who voted it in, and what an embarrassment that is. Not something I would be proud of Rambo.

» on 05.15.12 @ 11:06 AM

Mr/or/Mrs 50: what the hemmingway is “fascist” about a bag ban?? If anything, the American Chemistry industry taking over our legislation process is a lot closer to fascism than communities deciding how to impact their environment. Sheesh, talk about over the top. Get_a_grip, and stop calling everyone you don’t agree with a “wealthy, white elitist”.I’m none of that and I hardly ever agree with you.
To the topic. OK saying the plastic bag is destroying Earth is a little ridiculous, but the point is completely valid. We are incredibly wasteful and the ubiquitous plastic bag is the perfect emblem of that wastefulness. Curtailing their use is simply smart, and no one can argue past that fact. What’s the best way? I don’t know, that’s what research and dialogue are for. A ban on single use bags sure seems like an easy place to start.
Have you noticed how many retailers now ask you, “You need a bag for that?” after you buy something? Start saying “No thanks”. That’ll help, too.

» on 05.15.12 @ 11:59 AM

Oh, for crying out loud Noleta, it’s not the bag ban, its Ramjets attitude as with most liberals about such things. “Oh this is good, we should do this and we should force, by law, coercion, by any means, the masses to do the same thing particularly since we intellectually narcissistic, liberal, lefty, progressives are so much smarter than any one else, harrumph! And Heil!

Some knee jerking enviro whackos find garbage in the ocean, and rather than punish the dumpers, the litter bugs and those responsible they immediately jump to punishing everyone and turn the event into another proselytizing religious moment.

I to believe we have become a society obsessed with crass self indulgence and materialism. We have no soul anymore and try to fill that hole with chemicals and toys. But the solution is not brow beating people into submission to the almighty eco god so they will behave. We have enough idiotic brow beating religions already, most of which are about forcing behavior rather than giving one a reason to change.

Hence, Noleta, my appeal to Wayne to show, rather than proselytize, the way to find peace with your empty soul. And to stop this horse hockey leftist mantra of beating the masses into submission as Rambler the Racists always finds comfort with. Yes we disagree with a great many things but surely we can agree to that.

» on 05.16.12 @ 07:01 AM

We are already seeing the unintended consequences of using reusable grocery bags. Apparently, there have been a number of cases where people don’t clean them, and the bags have become a carrier of viruses and have infected humans. A girl soccer team in Washington was victimized by a Norovirus outbreak traced to a reusable grocery bag. When will we ever learn?

» on 05.17.12 @ 03:15 AM

So some girls get sick to their stomachs because they consumed something from a dirty bag, and it’s the bag’s fault? Not to slight their discomfort or health risk, but please be serious. Was the problem a result of enviro-fascists imposing their evil will upon some innocent teenagers, as Messrs 50 and Segal would like us to think, or just a case of poor hygiene and bad luck?
“When will we ever learn” to respect the facts and logic right in front of us and resist the temptation to fly off the rhetorical handle?

» on 05.17.12 @ 12:35 PM

I guess my point evades you Noleta. You don’t need to solve a litter problem by punishing every one. The bag bans are typical knee jerk environmental over reaction. The same kind that stalled our nuclear energy program for 30 years, made drilling our own oil impossible and fuels one of the most parasitic, least useful, productivity robbing, wealth draining industries on earth, environmental legalism.

Bag bans don’t stop littering. They just make high minded narcissist comfortable that they don’t have to deal with it. The environmental movement, if it were really concerned with garbage in the oceans would focus their efforts on the people throwing garbage in the ocean rather than trying to ban everything manufactured they find there.

As many who have commented on this subject have said, rarely are single use bags ever used one time. I get 5 to 10 times the use out of these bags and when they are gone will resort to buying heavier replacements, so much for eliminating the source. And of course the jerks dumping garbage will continue doing so while the rebel environmentalist driving their environment destroying Prius will have a nicely vacuumed conscience.  Oh, and we will have yet another law on the books dictating our lives and draining our freedom one little piece at a time.

» on 05.17.12 @ 02:12 PM

I have purchased about 15 of those 99cent bags at TJs and about 5 of those green bags from Lazy Acres. I use them for tons of things. I did it because of the information I learned about the plastic bags and the environment (education), and the price was right (lack of barriers), the stores sometime give 5 cent discounts when you have your own bag (incentives), and it seemed the responsible thing to do (conscience, seeing others lead by example).

Like many of us, I voluntarily spent a total of $25 over the last few years on “permanent” bags. I remember to bring them shopping about 75% of the time. The beauty of this is that no one told me I had to. I’m a rebellious sort that loves my freedom, and if a store told me I had to buy those permanent shopping bags, I’d probably stop shopping at their store simply because I like reasonable choices, as most Americans do, and I like to be responsible without having to be forced.

This freedom-of-choice preference is the opposite of all the “nanny state” laws that are being forced on us. The lack of personal responsibility invites tyranny. If we focused instead on raising responsible kids with values and a conscience, and if we act as responsible adults and lead by example, then we do not need a tyrannical government passing laws to make us eat our vegetables & use cloth bags! So, instead of being forced by the government to tell us how to live, I think the majority of people in the US prefer education, lack of barriers, examples & incentives to do the right thing. And we also need the freedom to decide if it really is the “right” thing. Not only is our government getting good at being tyrannical, they are excellent at brainwashing us to their own ends.

» on 07.08.12 @ 05:33 PM

I agree. This is a timely issue, yet we (Santa Barbara) are still behind the times. This should be only part of the response in the greater role to lead in the conservation of all of our human resources. The birthplace of EarthDay should be able to do more. What can I do?

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