Illustration by Louise Leong.
Illustration by Louise Leong.

The plastic revolution is over.

Once valued for its low cost, malleability, and durability, a plastic bag doesn’t last much longer than the duration of the trip from grocery store to home. The plastic itself outlives its usefulness, possibly taking hundreds of years to break down.

Amid protestations from the plastics industry, Santa Cruz County has passed an ordinance that, in the future, will ban one-time use plastic bags, and begin charging a 10 cent fee for paper bags, that will eventually increase to 25 cents per bag.

It’s a measure that’s been a long time coming for eco-friendly Santa Cruz, and it follows the path of European, Asian, and African countries that have already begun taxing or banning plastic bags. Denying shoppers their free bags may be an inconvenience, but the waste generated by plastic bags is massive and completely unnecessary.

Plastic bags are neither animal nor vegetable — the mineral-derived particles will never fully break down. They disintegrate into smaller and smaller polymer particles that find their way into the food chain through water and soils, are ingested by wildlife, and kill marine animals.

Plastic bags also pose the single biggest problem in creating sustainable dumps — every few hours, hundreds of bags must be scraped from the fences surrounding landfills, distributing themselves as far as the wind can take them.

Since 2007, volunteers from local Santa Cruz organization Save Our Shores have removed over 18,000 plastic bags from local waterways and beaches. According to the organization’s statistics, 60,000 plastic bags are discarded in the U.S. every five seconds.

Very few of these discards end up being recycled.

An oft-cited example of a successful bag reduction is the plastic tax that has been implemented in Ireland, where post-ban plastic bag usage dropped by 95 percent.

Incentive programs are designed to attract plastic bags back to the store to be recycled, but the haul is never very big, and it may be that a tax penalty will more effective.

People love saving money, and if the past is any indication, this tax is the sollution to plastic bag waste. In the 1960s a law went into effect, making roadside litter a citable offense. Visible litter decreased by 61 percent.

Proponents of plastic bags — retail industries and plastic producers — protest that a complete ban isn’t needed, and that “biodegradable” bags fit the sustainability bill just fine. But biodegradable bags still waste labor and money, and still represent a one-use object that will continue to end up floating down our streets like a 21st century tumbleweed.

Better isn’t good enough.

What did people do before the 1960s invention of plastic bags? They used bags that would sometimes last decades, while, today, the average American uses between 300 and 700 plastic bags per year.

We support the decision of a blanket ban on plastic bags — saving the world one minor inconvenience at a time.