By Rachel Tennenbaum

“American Beauty” references aside, the plastic bag is not “the most beautiful thing in the world.” San Francisco faced this reality in late March, when the city banned plastic bags from its stores. This new law has left environmentally conscious Santa Cruz residents thinking, should we do this too?

According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States goes through 100 billion plastic bags a year.

Plastic bags do not biodegrade, they photodegrade, meaning they decompose into smaller and smaller pieces. Marine mammals ingest these bits of plastic and choke on them, causing thousands of deaths yearly.

San Francisco is the first American city to take a stand. At the end of March 2007, city officials placed a ban on plastic bags, giving grocery stores six months and pharmacies one year to find bagging alternatives. Possible solutions range from the continued use of paper bags to biodegradable plastic bags, or asking customers to bring their own cloth bags from home.

To combat excessive bag use, European grocery stores currently charge for bags. Some people argue that a tax should be placed on plastics.

Where does that leave Santa Cruz, a city with a reputable eco-friendly conscience? Vice-Mayor Ryan Coonerty said that the city’s citizens have moved to action.

“We want to make sure our actions have the best possible impact on the Earth,” Coonerty said. “But San Francisco is a city of 1 million [residents] and Santa Cruz is much smaller — it’s a different market.”

Santa Cruz’s Public Works Department has yet to pass any resolutions about plastic bags, instead waiting to see how the ban will hold up in San Francisco.

Chris Moran is the waste reduction manager for the City of Santa Cruz.

“We support what [San Francisco] is doing and we are watching them. We encourage the public to get cloth bags and to say no to plastic bags altogether,” she said. “We’re working through public outreach and education … The result is a more informed public.”

Some in the community suggest that prohibiting plastic bags may not be the best solution.

“A ban is a blunt policy instrument,” said Dr. Daniel Press, chair of the Environmental Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz.

Press went on to explain that a ban acts as more of a punitive device, rather than offering rewards as an incentive for taking action.

Creating a plastic bag ban would be a long and arduous process, necessitating cooperation from the different cities in Santa Cruz County to make sure the ban is truly effective without hurting business prices.

According to National Geographic, plastic bags take 40 percent less energy to produce than paper, and generate 80 percent less solid waste than paper. Although plastic bags are made out of petroleum, a non-renewable resource, their creation also causes 70 percent less air pollution.

Concerns have arisen over the possible increase in use of paper bags, as it would mean felling more trees. And while paper bags are biodegradable, they generate more solid waste than plastic bags, taking up more room in landfills.

In Santa Cruz County there are recycling facilities available for both paper and plastic. Although the city is not ready to impose a plastic ban, officials are working toward other environmentally conscious movements, such as the recent ban on Styrofoam. Moran said action lies within the hands of the community.

“If people are concerned and want a ban on plastic bags, they will act today,” Moran commented, “and we suggest to use biodegradable products at your next party.”