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CALPIRG’s battle against single-use plastics

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JUNE 29, 2022

On average, a person uses a single-use plastic bag for 12 minutes of their life — a bag that can then take up to 1,000 years to break down. The problem of single-use plastics is not going away anytime soon. These pollutants are a significant harm to our environment, killing 100,000 marine animals a year. As inhabitants of this beautiful planet, we have a responsibility to protect our Earth. Further regulation on plastic is crucial towards creating a more sustainable future.

Do consumers really need single-use plastics, especially when there are more sustainable alternatives? For example, 68% of paper bags get recycled each year, whereas only 8% of plastics do. We as a Berkeley community should commit to exchanging our harmful plastics for more environmentally friendly replacements. Paper is already being used in many businesses in Berkeley, and a collective move towards increased paper usage would be simple and sustainable — particularly because paper is easier and more likely to be recycled and repurposed. 

Plastics remain in our environment forever. But the Berkeley community is uniquely qualified to lead the charge against single-use plastics. We are a community committed to better social change, and we can set an example for the rest of the state to follow. 

CALPIRG, a student-run advocacy group on campus, has been working towards a more sustainable future for a while now. We are a student-run, student-funded, statewide organization (at eight UC campuses). We have been around for 50 years, and we are the organization that got the state of California to commit to 100% clean energy.

Recently, we have been working with Vice Mayor Kate Harrison for the Better Berkeley Bag Ban. Vice Mayor Harrison is clear about the impact of plastics on our environment and our health, stating in an email: “Greenhouse gases are produced all along the plastic supply chain. In just the United States, clearing land and extracting and transporting natural gas to make plastics, and incinerating plastic waste creates as much carbon dioxide as 416 million vehicles each year.  Leaks of methane, which travels with natural gas, are another major cause of climate change and create health hazards. We also know that microplastics are left behind in our ecosystems and our bodies. As a public official, I am obliged to protect residents’ health and safety as well as that of the planet.” We have gathered 2,158 signatures and 87 photo petitions from students and community members, as well as sign-ons from 42 small businesses in support of the Better Berkeley Bag Ban.

Why support CALPIRG and Berkeley City Council on our plastic campaign? As Amy Johnson — a grassroots coordinator on the plastics campaign — said: “We are really close to winning it. And we have proven in the past that we can accomplish the things that we say we are going to.” We are committed to working with the Berkeley City Council to pass our project. Currently, the Better Berkeley Bag Ban is being reviewed by the Facilities, Infrastructure, Transportation, Environment and Sustainability, or FITES, Committee. It is our job as members of the community to stress the importance of this ban. We must remind the respective committees of the urgency and damage that prolonging this process would cause. Many community members and students support the ban already, and every day it sits in decisions is another 85 grams, or 0.2 lbs, per person per day of plastic. Our planet cannot take much more of this.  

But don’t we already have a plastic bag ban in California? Yes, in 2016, the state of California passed a single-use plastics ban. However, this ban only adds a 10 cent charge to the use of single-use plastics. It also forced stores to switch to more durable plastics, but they have not proven to be any more environmentally friendly. 

Our Better Berkeley Bag Ban would eliminate the use of single-use plastics in the city entirely. It would also mandate that all paper bags become 100% recyclable. Although the current bag ban is making a difference, we want a Better Berkeley Bag Ban to make a drastic systemic change. 

Paige Lieblich, grassroots coordinator for the plastics campaign, urges students to support a better Berkeley bag ban: “Plastic pollution is causing really detrimental effects to our ecosystem and to humans, and this is a huge step in banning plastic pollution and hopefully banning all plastics.” With the support of the Berkeley student body, we can make changes within our city that may influence the rest of the state to follow our example. 

Every Berkeley student is here investing in their own future. Along with studying and working hard, taking care of our planet is a part of that investment. Supporting the ban of single-use plastics in our city is a way to ensure a more sustainable future. Without this ban, our environment will continue to deteriorate around us. It is our job not only to advocate for what changes we need, but also to follow up, and hold our representatives accountable. An immediate and strong ban on single-use plastics is necessary for the protection of our environment, and we must show this to our FITES committee so that the ordinance can be passed as soon as possible. 


Ali Dunleavy is an intern with CALPIRG on the Beyond Plastics Campaign contributing to the well-being of our planet. https://calpirgstudents.org/chapters/uc-berkeley/

JUNE 29, 2022