Friday, September 30 , 2016, 12:30 am | Fair 63º

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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

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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