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Jenny Romer holding bags at the beach

Trillions of Bags, But Just One Bag Lady

Jennie Romer ’01 Tries to Take the Bag Out of Bagging It

By George Thurlow '73

For every one of the 7.4 billion people who inhabit the Earth, there are 135 plastic bags handed out every year by stores, vendors and restaurants.

That’s 1 trillion plastic bags each year -- bags that end up snagged in trees, floating in the ocean or padding landfills. Those bags do not ever decompose.

They just break down into ever finer particles of plastic that will endure long after the extinction of cockroaches.


The United States uses about 100 billion plastic bags a year. Almost all of them are given away for free -- making them one of our most ubiquitous talismans of modern urban life.

It’s those numbers that drive Attorney Jennie Romer ‘01 to take on some of the most powerful manufacturers in the world in the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Romer has had a hand in crafting the legislation that has banned or instituted a fee on plastic bags all over California and most recently in New York City, where an estimated 9 billion bags are used every year. She has been fiercely opposed by the plastics industry, which has lined up powerful lobbyists to oppose the ban on economic as well as equity grounds.

She met recently with Coastlines magazine at a lunch grill in New York City, a few blocks from her Manhattan law office. It has been quite a journey from her days at UC Santa Barbara majoring in zoology, environmental studies and black studies, to becoming one of the world’s experts on plastic bag laws.

Jenny Romer

She told the New Yorker recently that her passion for recycling can be traced back to the days when her parents took her to a recycling center in El Cerrito, California, next to Richmond. There she would sit in the magazine recycling bin, collecting the latest magazines to take home and read. (This part of her “social” life she remembers to this day with vividness.)

At UC Santa Barbara, Romer enrolled as an English major after concluding that, “I felt like I was best at writing.” But a first year seminar on environmental policy with professor Robert Wilkinson, who is on the faculty of the Bren School, sparked an interest in the environment.

“He was really inspiring and he had us get involved in issues.” That began an academic plunge into environmental issues involving water, with trips to major water sheds in California and then, much more recently, a 10-day ocean trip to study the impact of plastic trash in the ocean.

“What she learned was that plastics may never break down. “I don’t think we’ve been around long enough to understand that the plastic is entering the entire global food chain as microscopic bits of inorganic matter, including the food we eat.” Yet another worry, she added, is that “these plastic particles attract other toxins to adhere to their surface.”

“After graduation from UCSB, Romer managed a record store in San Francisco and decided she really wanted to get serious about the environment. So she attended law school at night and sold music by day. In law school, she was asked to write a two-page paper in order to obtain a position on the law review. The topic was San Francisco’s effort to ban plastic bags.

“Through that paper she met San Francisco supervisor Ross Mirkirami, the author of that city’s plastic bag ban – the first in the United States. She became a volunteer in his office. Romer gradually became the unofficial spokesperson for the bag legislation and created a web site on plastic bags.

WASHED OUT

Our laundry is killing the ocean. Microfibers from synthetic fabrics like nylon and acrylic make up 85 percent of the trash clogging most of the world’s shorelines – and according to Mark Browne, a senior researcher at the University of South Wales in Australia, majority of synthetic waste is released from clothing washed in laundry machines.

Browne’s experiments revealed that a single piece of clothing can release up to 2,000 individual microfibers in a single wash. In 2013, he forged a worldwide research collaboration “Benign by Design” to track from wash cycle to the oceans, and to research new sustainable textile designs.

This summer, researchers at the UC Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management reached the same conclusions as Browne through a study funded by outdoors apparel giant Patagonia.

By analyzing the effect of wash cycles on synthetic Patagonia jackets, UCSB scientists found that consumer washing of finished apparel products released large quantities of chemicals and microfibers. While wastewater treatment plants remove most of the microfibers during filtration, a “significant” amount of pollution still makes its way into the environment – and into the digestive systems of local aquatic wildlife. Sewage sludge full of these microfibers and microplastics are also used in agricultural fields. This same research study also detected microplastics in non-animal, marine-sourced food products like sea salt.

Different conservancy groups and scientists around the world continue to search for ways reduce microfiber pollution—from modifying washing machine designs to researching non-shedding synthetic textiles. Experts ask consumers to choose natural fiber-based clothes—and to reduce, reuse and recycle, to prevent more plastics – micro or otherwise - from clogging waterways and oceans.

“Her big moment came when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called a press conference in Sacramento to support a statewide ban on plastic bags. “I took that as an opportunity to showcase myself,” she recalled. “I went out and bought a new suit, had business cards printed and showed up at the press conference to hand them out. I became the expert.” She later confided, “There wasn’t much competition.”

“Often working for free, Romer helped cities and counties write and pass plastic bag fees, the ordinance structure which she much prefers, and bans. She has also helped other countries begin to deal with plastic bag issues.

““I’ve been at this so long I don’t say just `ban all plastic bags’ as the ultimate policy choice – my policy perspective has evolved to focus on fees,” she explained. “Plastic bags have some uses, but giving them away freely versus people having to think about them by paying a small fee, will become the reality.”

“After victories on the West Coast, Romer moved to New York, the absolute center of the plastic bag in the tree syndrome. Just as in California, her work on the New York law has been largely pro bono. During the day, she works as an attorney for a firm specializing in financial compliance.

“But that day job has not slowed Romer’s efforts to take on the ubiquitous flying bag. Her latest victory came with the passage in May of Intro 209A, a New York City Council bill that places a five cent fee on all carryout bags distributed in the city. It came just weeks after a lengthy and very flattering profile of her appeared in The New Yorker May 2 edition. It was an adoring piece by a New Yorker who spent his life pulling plastic bags out of New York bushes and trees.

“In the profile she explained, “I came to New York because if we can stop plastic bag here we’ll have an effect nationwide, even more than the anti-bag laws in California did. We passed an ordinance in Los Angeles, the second biggest city, and it was time to move to the biggest.” Part of Romer’s legacy will be played out on November 8 when California voters face two competing ballot measures regarding plastic bag bans.

One measure would mandate a ban on thin plastic carryout bags and requires a fee of 10 cents on other carryout bags (paper bags and thicker plastic bags marketed as “reusable”) handed out by grocers anywhere in California. The measure was passed by the state legislature in 2014, signed by the governor, but suspended until approved by state voters on the 2016 ballot because an alliance of plastic manufacturers and some business organizations gathered enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot. A yes vote on Prop 67 would uphold the statewide plastic bag ban.

A competing measure also qualified for the November ballot by the alliance. Romer alleges that the competing measure is simply an attempt by the alliance to confuse voters into voting against upholding the statewide ban.

The plastics industry says the fee is an unfair tax on shoppers and disproportionately hits low income shoppers. Romer counters that narrative is used by plastics industry groups in every city considering an ordinance but studies have shown that bag laws are supported across all income levels.

Already 138 California cities and counties prohibit plastic bags. A Los Angeles Times poll published earlier this year indicated voters want to keep the statewide ban by a margin of 59 to 34 percent.

Plastic bags in a tree in New York

Not far from her law office and around the corner from Madison Square Garden, there is a small but very busy CVS store. The plastic bags are flying out of the store at the rate of about 500 an hour. When I ask the clerk about the upcoming fee, I expect an earful of complaints. Instead, he smiles and said he supports the fee. “We’ve got to save the Earth,” he said.

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