Santa Barbara Bans the Bag

Santa Barbara's ban on plastic grocery bags is a microcosm of how social change happens across the country.

By Ben Davis

Last night at Trader Joe’s (my neighborhood grocery store), I am happy to report that I wasn’t offered the usual “paper or plastic”… because not only was I carrying a canvas bag (a practice every hip Santa Barbara resident seems to follow), but a couple weeks ago, Santa Barbara’s bag ban went into effect.

The ban is the culmination of a four-year fight waged by environmental groups to prohibit supermarkets, pharmacies, and corner stores from providing plastic bags to customers. Californians throw away 123,000 tons of plastic bags each year, and SB’s bag ban will stem the flow of plastic into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the gyre of trash several hundred miles off the coast). There is also a new 10 cent fee on paper bags to protect California’s forests.

What is interesting about Santa Barbara’s bag ban is that it took so many years to become a reality. Bans have already passed in more than 100 California communities, and Santa Barbara – arguably the birthplace of the environmental movement (see article on the 1969 oil spill) – should have been one of the first cities to ban the bag, not one of the most recent. The reason for the delay: the City Council was scared of being sued by the American Chemistry Council and other petro-interest groups if it passed the ban without first conducting a (somewhat costly) environmental impact report (EIR). While these reports are meant to protect the environment, the plastics industry uses EIR laws to prevent communities from passing strong environmental laws. So Santa Barbara teamed up with nearby cities to split the cost of an EIR – which showed the bag ban wouldn’t harm the environment (shocking, I know) – and the City Council passed the ordinance.

And in the checkout line last night, I realized we have a perfect microcosm of how social change happens across the country. First, citizen groups educate the public about the problem (when the campaign started, many people didn’t know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) and solution (reduce our use of plastic). In fact, in 2011, Frontier Group’s Travis Madsen wrote a national report (released here in Santa Barbara) on the nations and local governments leading the way in banning plastic bags. Next, organizing (phone calls and public comment cards) puts pressure on elected officials to do the right thing (vote for the ban). Then there is opposition (threat of being sued) from powerful special interest groups (the American Chemistry Council) that unfortunately stalls the process. In response, citizens apply more pressure to elected officials, who figure out a way (split the cost of the EIR with other cities) to overcome the opposition, and pass the ordinance.

This is how social change plays out time and time again. Yesterday, it was playing out at my local grocery store.