EDITORIAL: There’s a sea of plastic bags upon our oceans of trash

A study out this week, and published in the journal PLOS ONE, for the first time gives a hard number for the amount of plastic garbage littering our oceans. It’s a sobering figure: 5.25 trillion particles of plastic.

That’s a number so large as to be incomprehensible. So, picture it this way: 269,000 tons of water bottles, Lego pieces, disposable pens and lighters, take-out coffee lids, Barbie heads, detergent containers and, of course, lots of plastic bags floating atop the sparkling blue horizon.

That’s a helpful image for people to recall should they run across one of the petitions being circulated by the plastic bag industry trying to stop California’s ban on single-use plastic bags.

A group of plastic bag makers, most of them outside of the state, are spending millions on misleading ads and paid signature gatherers to get a referendum on the bag ban on the November 2016 ballot.

Thanks to record-low voter turnout in the Nov. 4 election, plastic bag makers will have an easier time doing it. The referendum needs 505,000 valid signatures by Dec. 29, more than 300,000 fewer than it would have a year ago.

If the referendum qualifies for the ballot, it will postpone the July 15 bag ban implementation date until after the 2016 election. We don’t think the ban would be overturned by voters, who, according to polls, are mostly supportive. The plastic bag industry probably doesn’t either, but qualifying a referendum will give them more than a year reprieve.

It’s impossible to say how many more plastic shopping bags will be added to the Pacific Ocean during that time, but it’s a fair bet that a good portion of the 14 billion plastic grocery bags used in the state each year will end up in storm drains that flow into the ocean.

Though the bags can be recycled in California, hardly any are. Some are used a second time, especially by dog owners, but most end up in landfills where they will sit for generations before breaking down. Many of those, however, will escape their confines, catching the wind in their unique parachute design until they end up strewn about the state’s wild places — clogging up rivers flowing through the Valley, wrapping around Joshua trees in the desert and tying up manzanita bushes in the mountains.

There are ways for Californians to derail the plastic industry’s fight to keep profiting from polluting our state. The first, anyone can do: Don’t sign the petition.

The second way is for elected leaders in cities that have held off on enacting local bans to do so now. More than 130 other cities and counties in the state are already covered by one. Judging by the bags piling up along our roads and freeways, Fresno should ban them, too.