L.A. Bans Plastic Bags

Los Angeles City Leaps Aboard Plastic Bag Ban Wagon
by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Other versions of this article have appeared in:

  • Vall-E-Vents, Sierra Club San Fernando Valley, Jul/Oct 2012
  • Southern Sierran as Why L.A.’s Plastic Bag Ban Matters, July/Aug 2012.
  • Fullerton Observer as Plastic Bag Ban: Will Fullerton Follow City of L.A.’s Lead? Early June, p. 10.
  • Surf City Voice as L.A. Poised to Ban Plastic Bags: Surf City Vote Hinges on EIR Cost, 10 April, 2012
  • Santa Monica Daily Press, 09 April, 2012

Will the ban on plastic bags in L.A. be the tipping point for a statewide ban?

The “City of Angels” just joined a growing web of four dozen California jurisdictions banning single-use, plastic carry-out bags.On May 23, the L.A. City Council cast a near unanimous vote to ban the flimsy “T-shirt” style carry-out bags and to phase in a 10-cent fee on paper bags. An earlier proposal also included a ban on paper bags, but the council decided instead to consider after two years whether a ban on paper was needed depending on whether enough people had switched to reusable bags, the real goal of the plastic ban. A bag ordinance is expected to be enacted before year’s end, and a six-month grace period will follow so consumers can adjust and to allow stockpiles of plastic bags to be used up. The ban will not include the plastic bags used for fresh produce or meats.The L.A. Bureau of Sanitation estimates that the city uses 2.3 billion plastic bags and 400 million paper bags a year and that the bag recycling rate is only 5% for plastic and 21% for paper. The rest end up in landfills or, worse still, as litter.

The “Save the Plastic Bag Coalition,” a group of plastic bag makers and distributors, is putting forth an all-out effort to block the spread of plastic bag bans within the state through legal challenges. In March, L.A. County’s 2010 ordinance banning plastic bags and placing a 10-cent fee on paper bags was upheld in Superior Court. Other California jurisdictions which have enacted similar bans include the cities of San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose in the northern region and Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica, Calabasas and Malibu in the south. Many more ban ordinances are in the works across the state, including in Pasadena, Dana Point, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach, to name a few.

A California Supreme Court decision in July 2011 eased the way for local plastic bag bans by ruling that the City of Manhattan Beach, because it is a small community, did not have to complete an environmental impact report (EIR) about disposable paper bags before baring retailers from dispensing plastic ones. EIRs are costly, and the plastic bag industry has used them to block municipalities from enacting a local bag ban by suing when a report has not been completed. Among ban supporters, hopes are high that the ban in L.A., the state’s largest city, will tilt the scales toward a statewide ban.

A bill proposing a statewide ban failed in 2010, even though it was supported by the California Grocers Association on the basis that the patchwork, city-by-city bans create confusion for both retailers and shoppers (AB 1998). Opponents of the ban, representing the plastic bag trade and a lobbying group for the plastics industry, had argued that a ban would cost jobs and that paper bags are just as bad for the environment because of the energy used to make them. If California had passed a ban, it would have been the first statewide one in the nation, though the state of Hawaii beat California to that punch when the final holdout in Hawaii, Honolulu county, passed a plastic bag ban on May 10.

Plastic bag litter is not only an eyesore on land but also fouls waterways, like the L.A. River, and kills marine animals who mistake the bags for food. A floating plastic bag resembles a jellyfish, which might explain why plastic bags are found clogging the digestive tracks of dead sea turtles and marine mammals like whales and dolphins. Plastic bags are a significant source of ocean pollution because they are made from natural gas, a non-renewable resource, and do not biodegrade. They fragment over time into bits of plastic thought to persist in the ocean environment beyond any meaningful human timescale.

The Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation has measured the buildup up of plastic debris in an area of the Pacific twice the size of Texas and dubbed the “Pacific Garbage Patch” which, in 1999, already contained six times more plastic than zooplankton. Analysis of ocean samples collected a decade later indicates that the ratio of plastic to plankton has risen six-fold.

Even here right off the coast of southern California, Algalita has found plastic debris at all ocean depths in amounts sometimes twice that of zooplankton.

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition is set on debunking the environmental claims made by plastic bag ban proponents (visit http://www.savetheplasticbag.com/). Even if half of what the coalition says is true, the fact remains that throwaway plastic bags are wasteful and easily replaced by reusable bags.

The fast pace at which local bans are cropping up in California  hopefully signals the end of the single-use, plastic bag era. California should join the 40 nations of the world that have already banned them.

One Response to L.A. Bans Plastic Bags

  1. Tremendous article, as usual. I arrogantly thought I knew everything there was to know about plastic bag issues, but I learned a great deal from reading this article. This sentence really resonated: “Plastic bags fragment over time into smaller bits of plastic thought to persist in the ocean environment beyond any meaningful human timescale.” If only we would stop and think when the store clerk asks the time-honored question, “Will that be paper or plastic?” that plastic bags like diamonds are forever.

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