Monday, December 22, 2008

Trash talk gets tough

by Laura Reinhard, Policy Associate

Originally posted on September 19, 2008

A few days ago as I was enjoying my morning coffee, I overheard a funny conversation between a pair of cyclists in San Mateo. They had just finished their post-ride sandwiches. 

      “Hey, you’re not going to throw away that plastic bag, are you?”

            “Well, I don’t really need it. They just gave it to me with my leftovers.”

      “Give it to me! Those things are like gold in San Francisco now.”

As a result of San Francisco’s recent ban on plastic bags San Franciscans are saving and re-using plastic bags instead of throwing them away—where they often wind up in our creeks, Bay and ocean. This result is exactly what environmental advocates have been encouraging for decades.  Yet often our local, state and federal governments opt for the easy-out—the “public education” approach—shying away from the controversy of putting laws on the books.

Overhearing this exchange brought home to me just how effective public policy can be in changing our behavior. “Public education”, while important, won’t be enough without effective regulation. The problem of marine debris and plastics pollution seems so much bigger than our family’s grocery bags. Often, we don’t feel like our actions matter enough to warrant changing our behavior. But that’s the point of legislation—to help us, en masse, to do the right thing—even when we can’t always see the impact for ourselves. San Francisco’s ban has made plastic bags less plentiful and disposable. More people are switching to reusable bags, keeping millions of plastic bags out of the Bay and ocean, and ultimately out of the stomachs of seals, turtles, and birds.

Despite massive public outcry over plastic pollution in our bays and oceans, many Bay Area cities are lobbying hard to block regulation aimed at stopping trash flows into the Bay. Unfortunately, they might be winning. The San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board (Water Board) has the authority to require cities to stop the daily flood of trash into the Bay from polluted creeks and rivers. The Water Board can set limits on the amount of pollution cities can discharge into the Bay when they re-write the storm water permit this Fall, Save The Bay wants a strong permit that requires measurable, enforceable reductions in trash pollution. Cities and counties, on the other hand, want a weak permit, with toothless regulations on trash. We won’t know if their lobbying efforts are paying off until we review the next permit draft when it is released in a few weeks.

Most of us have no idea how the Water Board seriously affects our lives and environment, but they are a critical regulator of pollution. Trash in the Bay affects our quality of life, not just the lives of sea birds and seals. That’s why there’s never been a better time to speak up and tell the Water Board that you want a strong storm water permit. We’ve been flushing our trash into the Bay for long enough. It’s time to get strong trash pollution laws on the books.

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