Talking about a bag ban takes some translation in Los Angeles

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More than 40 cities and counties in California have outlawed single-use grocery bags. Now in the state’s largest city, officials are tackling a possible ban on plastic and paper bags.

L.A. is also perhaps the most diverse, something the city council worried about when it told the Bureau of Sanitation to work on a public education plan. But it’s not an impossible task, according to bureau assistant director Alex Helou. "Other cities only ban plastics and put fee on paper. However there’s some progressive cities who are banning both and moving towards reusable bags. Our staff have been out in the community talking to people."

That work has already helped a bag ban gain some traction this spring. Recycling ambassador Jose Alonso offers people free reusable bags on their way into the Grocery Warehouse in Echo Park. "We just come up to them, would they like a free, reusable bag?" he says. They explain the possibility that the city could ban both plastic and paper. "We’re just starting you up with your bag so you can start using that for your groceries," he says.

Along with the bag, they press a one-page color flier into peoples' hands, with an impressive array of facts favoring reusable bags…counting up the millions of trees consumed by paper bags, the tons of oil used in plastic bags, the cost of cleaning up plastic along the coast, and how few of the bags get recycled.

Alonso stops a guy in a blue work shirt and white cap who just hopped out of a truck. The free bag buys Alonso time to talk, and Ajay Lal is an agreeable listener, nodding and smiling. "Oh. Oh. Plastic. Alonso tells Lal only 5 percent of plastic bags get recycled. "I know," Lal says. "Wow. OK. Thank you very much."

Customers like Lal stream into the parking lot: Thai, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Latino. Sanitation workers explain a possible ban in five languages, including Cantonese. In three hours on a Friday afternoon, Alonso and other city workers stop about 250 people on their way into the store, handing out about that many bags.

Alonso guesses 20 percent of Angelenos use reusable shopping bags. That number varies among stores the outreach program has visited: El Super, Whole Foods, Liborio, Western Kosher Market, Fresh & Easy. But organizer Joe Acosta says, across those markets, people share enthusiasm. "We’ve been out in Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, small markets, big chain markets, good feedback, people are interested."

That’s true for Dana Fan, a petite, energetic woman whose family has run Grocery Warehouse for 20 years. She’s ready to save money by no longer supplying bags, but she worries about costing her customers money while they make the switch. "A lot of the customers are used to getting extra for trash liners, back up, whatever. So it’s good to prep them a little bit cause plastics and everything else is constantly going up in price and it is another expense that we could maybe get rid of...eventually," she says, laughing.

Fan’s cashiers are quick. Young women keep customers moving toward the Sunset Boulevard exit. They’re so fast they put truck driver Ajay Lal’s groceries in plastic bags before he can hand over his new reusable one. But he’s not sweating it. He points out that L.A. recycles all plastics. Like his undesirable plastic bags: "We have a blue container coming for that so we put it in there. From now on I’m going to bring that from my car."

In markets like these over the past several months, sanitation workers collected few complaints about a bag ban. But some people want more than one bag to get started: "Can I have two? No. One, one, one."

Sanitation managers reckon that’s one sign people are okay with a possible ordinance. We could see if they’re right when the L.A. City Council takes up the bag ban later this month.

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