April 22, 2012
Long gone are the days of the infamous question we could always expect at the supermarket: “would you like paper or plastic bags?” In recent years, environmentalists have urged cities and states, both domestically and abroad, to place a ban on the use of plastic bags due to their negative impact on the environment. They contribute significantly to increasing landfills and litter, and can result in harm to wildlife through ingestion or suffocation. Plastic bag bans are relatively easy for consumers to transition to in their daily lives—reusable canvas or sturdy, recycled plastic bags are becoming increasingly popular and extremely affordable, providing an easy solution to no plastic bag policies. San Francisco was the first city in the nation to enact a ban on plastic bags, and many California cities soon followed suit. However, passing such legislation is not as easy as it seems. With plastic companies lobbying against bans and their employees arguing its unfair for them to lose jobs, especially during economic times like this, policy makers must forge through lots of red tape to make the changes happen.
This “red tape,” has contributed to the challenges that Los Angeles has encountered regarding its own plastic bag ban legislation, including numerous lawsuits and opposition briefs. In 2008, Los Angeles County announced that it would begin working on a plastic bag ban, which came to fruition in 2010. According to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles City Council announced on April 5, 2012 that it would continue to pursue both a plastic and paper bag ban in approximately 7,500 stores county-wide. A 6-month phase out period will commence, resulting in a 10-cent fee for every non-reusable bag purchased at the checkout line. If the Los Angeles ban is successful, it will join San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Carpinteria, Santa Monica, and many other California cities in the banning of plastic grocery bags. Even with the success, however, the end goal for environmentalists is to push on towards a statewide ban altogether.
While the success of the ban on plastic bag seems to be having a bit of a snowball effect, it is not without its challenges. On March 20, 2012, Save the Plastic Bag Coalition (SPBC) filed suit against the city of Carpinteria for including restaurants and other food providing facilities in its plastic bag ban, on the grounds that it violates the California Retail Food Code. Members of the SPBC include Command Packaging, among other companies, responsible for selling, distributing, and recycling of plastic bags. Their vested, personal interest in the future use of plastic bags slows down the process of enacting the bans on a larger scale. SPBC and other concerned parties have filed lawsuits against many other cities and counties, including but not limited to LA County, Marin County, Santa Cruz County, and the City of San Francisco. These parties are hoping to defend their own welfare, and this is the red tape legislators must face and move through to help the state bid farewell to plastic bags. The road to a plastic bag-free world might be long, and opposition will likely continue to be an obstacle, but there’s finally long-awaited progress in the right direction.
Sydney MacEwen and Dawnielle Tellez Alanna are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
According to James Gustave Speth, the dean of the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, if we “continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates… continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates… the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.” The important part about this quote is that it specifies current rates. With current rates, we will create a world not fit to live in within our children’s lifetimes. But with the exponential growth of both our population and our economy, holding current levels isn’t even possible as they are rapidly accelerating to meet with demands.
So what’s the answer? Is our current environmental legislation not enough? Are they too few in number, or too lenient to be effective? Environmental laws and regulations are determined by, and regulated and enforced by assemblies, specialized to certain aspects of the environment. Examples include the Environmental Protection Agency and National Resources Defense Council, and all have legislative, judicial, and executive power to make, shape, regulate, and enforce laws. In many cases, the regulations set for by agencies are strict. For example, when regulating the amount of chemicals that can be in drinking water or in food products, chemicals are mandated to be below, or reported on the label, if they are present in any quantity above 1/1000th of the no observable effect level.
We do have a great number of regulations in this country. If the environmental movement, sparked in the 1960s and 70s by visible and overwhelming environmental degradation such as the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 or the even more visible LA smog of decades past, had never made the legislative and progressive movement that it did, our country would be in a much more ghastly state than it is now.
Inconsistencies, however, occur in our agencies and their oversight. Even with all the laws and regulations set forward, half of U.S. lakes and a third of its rivers still “fail to meet the standards that by law should have been met by 1983.” When there isn’t such a great, public demand to commit to regulations set forth, agencies can often slack off and are irregular in their oversight of the regulations that they set forth. Let’s look at the example of the Minerals Management Service , a former agency under the Department of the Interior. The M.M.S. until recently was in charge of offshore oil drilling, but in the past has been known to allow oil companies pay less on oil-lease payments, accept gifts from industry representatives, and, “in some cases, literally slept with the people they were regulating.” After the B.P. oil spill in 2010, this agency was immediately dissolved. With so much public attention brought to it, the fact that it was not regulating and enforcing what it was designated to became very visible.
This lack of regulation doesn’t just happen in this one agency. The only reason the M.M.S. got in real trouble was because one of the greatest environmental disasters of the decade happened under their watch. And if there are more examples out there of agencies that can barely regulate and laws that they are designated to, how can we even judge the effectiveness of our laws? It doesn’t matter if they’re strict or not if they can’t even be enforced. And with inconsistencies of the vigor of agencies’ oversight due to public opinion, aesthetic disasters, and current political officials, how can agencies be even taken seriously by the huge and powerful corporations that they are trying to control?
There are just too many factors and stakeholders that shape the policies and amount of regulation that an agency is going to perform. If we want any laws to be effective and carried out, they must be run and regulated and maintained by respected and powerful agencies. We must find incentives for agencies to maintain the integrity of our existing legislation and maintaining the goals that we set forth for ourselves environmentally, before we can focus on adopting new and stricter legislation. Because if this problem isn’t first addressed, any and every environmental law and regulation could become obsolete.
Kimberly Knabel and Justin Bodga are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
October 30, 2011
n July 2011, Representative Ken Calvert (R-California) introduced the Reducing Environmental Barriers to Unified Infrastructure and Land Development (REBUILD) Act. Currently, construction and land development projects must not only meet state regulations, but also federal standards created by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Under the REBUILD Act, development projects would have to comply with state regulations only, provided that these state regulations uphold NEPA standards or higher. In effect, the REBUILD Act seeks to merge state and federal legislation to expedite the process of bringing development projects to fruition without sacrificing environmental protection.
As it stands, many states, such as California, already feature more stringent regulations than NEPA standards.Calvert himself called the REBUILD Act an attempt to “remove bureaucratic red tape” and “streamline the environmental review processes for critical infrastructure projects without compromising environmental protections.” Estimates place the amount of time saved by the REBUILD Act, should it be passed, around 18 months per project.
While resistance to strict government legislation is nothing new, the current economic climate poses a unique challenge to environmental protection. As this collection of polls from 2007-2011 shows, there is often a dichotomy presented between the environment and the economy; if one prospers, the other suffers. A March 2010 Gallup Poll found that 53% of Americans surveyed said that economic growth takes precedence over environmental protection. The same study concluded that American concern for the environment had hit a 20 year low. Opinions are also especially polarized across party lines. A 2010 CNN poll reported that Republicans, and to a lesser extent, Independents, felt that “economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.” A majority of Democrats, however, felt that the environment should be protected, even at the risk of curbing economic growth.
Yet the issue of too much environmental regulation is not specific to Democrats or Republicans; nor is it limited to even The United States.“TheRedTapeChallenge” as it is known in the United Kingdom is an initiative launched by Parliament in early 2011 to reevaluate government regulation in a variety of sectors, including the environment. The Red Tape Challenge addresses the issue of regulation and red tape by attempting to encourage greater environmental and societal responsibility. The creators of The Red Tape Challenge recognize the importance of regulations but also the danger of having too many and the impact on an economy and business. On their website they sum up their opinions by saying, “This government has set a clear aim: to leave office having reduced the overall burden of regulation. With more than 21,000 regulations active in the UK today, this won’t be an easy task – but we’re determined to cut red tape.”
Essentially the United Kingdom is opening up their Environmental Regulations and Policies to be commented on and edited by the people. However just because a group of businessmen want one regulation cut doesn’t mean that it will be because the Ministers will have a total of 3 months to determine which regulations will be kept and why they will be kept. This is done so that the red tape will be cut, not the vital environmental regulations. In order for the regulations to remain the same cases will be heard on both sides and argued until a decision is made. However there is much concern as to whether or not this policy will be what is necessary to avoid Red Tape or whether it will undermine important regulations, and Britain remains largely divided over the issue.
About the authors: Makena Crowe and Minda Monteagudo are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.