May 24, 2012 in Nation/World

Paper or plastic? L.A. votes neither

David Zahniser Los Angeles Times
 

LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles became the largest city in the nation Wednesday to approve a ban on plastic bags at supermarket checkout lines, handing a hard-fought victory to environmentalists.

The City Council voted 13-1 to phase out plastic bags over the next 16 months at an estimated 7,500 stores, meaning shoppers will need to bring reusable bags or purchase paper bags for 10 cents each.

The ban came after years of campaigning by clean-water advocates who said it would reduce the amount of trash in landfills, the region’s waterways and the ocean. They estimate Californians use 12 billion plastic bags a year and that less than 5 percent of the state’s plastic bags are recycled.

Los Angeles becomes the latest in a string of California cities – including San Jose, San Francisco and Long Beach – to ban plastic bags.

Plastic bag bans across California vary in scale, with some applying to all retailers and restaurants, and others covering only supermarkets. Some are silent on paper bags while others, like Los Angeles County’s, require markets to charge customers who want to use paper bags.

Officials in some cities with bag bans hail the program as a success.

Santa Monica’s plastic bag ban has been in place since September. “There’ve been no citations necessary to give out,” said Josephine Miller, a city environmental analyst. “No stores have gone out of business.”

San Francisco approved the state’s first plastic bag ban in 2007, applying it only to supermarkets and pharmacies. Since then, officials have moved to expand the bag restrictions, which have drawn a legal challenge.

Despite initial grumbling from customers and business owners, the public has gotten used to bringing their own bags, said David Assmann, a manager in San Francisco’s environment department. “I think it’s become part of the culture here,” he said.

In Los Angeles County, the 10-cent paper bag fee has led to a 94 percent reduction in the use of those bags, said Jennie R. Romer, founder of plasticbaglaws.org, who has advised cities on the passage of bag laws.

Things went less smoothly in Oakland, which was successfully sued over its ban. That city dropped its measure but will be covered by Alameda County’s plastic bag ban starting next year.

Council members in Los Angeles were urged on Wednesday by actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and an array of environmental groups. As they prepared to approve the ban, city lawmakers called on their counterparts in the state capital to follow suit.

“Let’s get the message to Sacramento that it’s time to go statewide,” said Councilman Ed Reyes, who is pushing an effort to revitalize the Los Angeles River.

The council’s decision kicks off a four-month environmental review, followed by what is expected to be routine passage of an ordinance enacting the ban. At that point, larger stores will have six months to stop handing out plastic bags, and smaller markets will have 12 months. After that, retailers would be required to charge 10 cents for each paper bag they provide customers.

As they celebrated their action, council members quietly backed away from a more controversial plan to also ban use of paper grocery bags, first proposed last year by appointees of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“My hope is that so few paper bags will be used as a result of this measure that the formal ban … on paper bags may not even be necessary,” said Councilman Paul Koretz, who initially had hoped to prohibit paper as well.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks cast the lone opposing vote, saying the city lacked information on potential health hazards from reusable bags.

Employees of plastic bag companies – many in T-shirts with the message “Don’t Kill My Job” – pleaded unsuccessfully with council members to change course, saying they feared they would soon be unemployed.

An industry group warned that the council’s decision will threaten the jobs of 2,000 workers statewide and said it is keeping open the option of filing a legal challenge. “With this bag ban, the city chose to take a simplistic approach that takes away consumer choice instead of pursuing meaningful programs that encourage greater recycling of plastic bags and wraps, while preserving jobs,” said Mark Daniels, chairman of the nonprofit American Progressive Bag Alliance.


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