IN USE: Reusable bags have become a common sight since a ban on plastic bags began. (Photo by Brandon Wise)
IN USE: Reusable bags have become a common sight since a ban on plastic bags began. (Photo by Brandon Wise)

SAMOHI — Over a year after Santa Monica banned plastic bags from local grocery stores, Santa Monicans are converting to a plastic-bag free reality, although younger adults still cling to disposable paper versions, according to a study conducted by local high school students.

The results, released last weekend by Santa Monica High School’s Team Marine, showed that the ban succeeded in reducing plastic bag usage from 70 percent of bags in local grocery stores to zero, while use of paper, reusable bags and the no-bag option all increased by varying percentages.

Which of the non-plastic options a person chose varied depending on gender, age and even which grocery store a person visited, be it a traditional store or a store with “eco-friendly” credentials, like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

The study provides the only analysis available on how bags are used in Santa Monica, and compares both a pre- and post-ban world, said Benjamin Kay, marine science teacher at Samohi and coach for Team Marine.

“I believe this is Team Marine’s most significant contribution to environmental science thus far,” Kay said.

For 19 months spanning a time period before and after the ban took effect, the students posted up in front of five local grocery stores including the Downtown Vons and Whole Foods, Albertsons on Ocean Park Boulevard, Trader Joe’s on Pico Boulevard and Ralphs at Olympic and Cloverfield boulevards.

They watched store patrons leave with their purchases and documented the customers’ gender, approximate age and, of course, what kind of bag they used to carry their groceries.

Some people gave them weird looks, or came over to ask why the students were standing outside of grocery stores, said Angelina Hwang, co-captain of Team Marine and a junior at Samohi.

“They were really interested in what we were doing,” Hwang said.

The team members then crunched the data and came out with the results.

The results were fairly consistent. Females tended to use reusable bags more than men, and reusable bag usage went up more at an “eco-friendly” store compared to “normal” stores.

Most surprising to Team Marine co-captain and senior Evie Cote was not the gender of the bag users, but the age.

While older adults used plastic bags more often than younger people in pre-ban Santa Monica, they actually adapted better to reusable bags than other age groups.

That was big news for Josephine Miller, who spreads the word on reusable bags and the ban for the Office of Sustainability and the Environment.

She planned to spend much of this year reaching out to seniors, but the students’ presentation before city officials and the Santa Monica Task Force on the Environment suggested her efforts might be better spent with younger customers.

Teens and younger adults tended to walk out of grocery stores carrying their purchases in their hands, and showed the lowest percentage of reusable bag use amongst the four age groups surveyed.

That points to people who may work but not live in Santa Monica and stop by stores to grab lunch, Miller said.

“I thought that 20 to 30 year olds would be pretty on it, but there is a large community that don’t live here that need to be educated on it,” Miller said.

She wouldn’t have known that without the work of Team Marine. City officials don’t have the resources to conduct so extensive a survey, she said.

“Having those students go out was pretty fantastic,” Miller said. “We appreciate the work that they did.”

Before the ban, Santa Monicans and those from outside the area who shopped in local stores used 26 million single-use plastic bags each year. They contributed to litter, green house gas emissions and cost residents and other taxpayers in clean-up and landfill fees.

Only 5 percent of plastic bags are actually recycled, according to the Office of Sustainability and the Environment. Many find their way into the ocean, where fish and other wildlife mistake them for food.

Although Santa Monica’s efforts help, there are still 19 billion bags used each year in California, according to some statistics. More and more cities, most recently Huntington Beach, are jumping on board with bans.

Such legislation can have negative consequences as well, said Donna Dempsey, a spokesperson for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group of plastic bag manufacturers.

The plastic bag industry supports 1,900 jobs in California and 30,800 nationwide, Dempsey said, and the products can be recycled.

Although only 14.7 percent of bags and film get recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans tend to reuse plastic bags as trashcan liners and for other household uses, Dempsey said.

Reusable bags are no panacea, as they can harbor dangerous bacteria if not properly cleaned which result in illness, she said.

“We just want people to be informed. When you have a ban, their choice is taken away,” she said.

Supporters also hold that plastic bags weigh less than paper bags and take up less space, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from trucks needed to deliver the products.

“There is a reason why 20 to 30 years ago we switched from paper to plastic,” Dempsey said.

You don’t see Team Marine making the case for paper bags.

Approximately 3.5 million paper bags were sold in the first year, according to the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, although the number sold dropped 5.6 percent between the first and second six months of that year.

“They’re better than plastic because they are recycled, but they’re definitely not the solution,” Cote said. “I think it would also be helpful to have a ban on those eventually.”

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