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LA city council's vote on a bag ban: forward movement, yes. Historic? Not quite

Even in a small market like Grocery Warehouse, LA sanitation workers are ready to talk to people in 5 languages, a sign of the city's diversity.
Even in a small market like Grocery Warehouse, LA sanitation workers are ready to talk to people in 5 languages, a sign of the city's diversity.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

Over at the L.A. Times, they’re hailing a step that L.A. City Council took toward banning plastic bags as historic. Over here, we’re not. It seems to be worth explaining why.

First, a bit of history. Richard Alarcon joked today at a press conference before the council meeting: “What took so long?” He made that joke because the idea of a bag ban in L.A. first got kicked around seriously four years ago, and he and then-councilwoman Janice Hahn did a lot of the kicking.

Now, let’s get to why this isn’t historic.

The City of Los Angeles did not pass the first bag ban in the state. That honor goes to the hometown of my favorite baseball team, and their ban was actually the first in the country. San Francisco is actually in a second phase of their ordinance.

The City of Los Angeles did not defend its environmental impact report justifying a bag ban all the way to the state Supreme Court. That honor goes to Manhattan Beach, which argued and won the case last year.

Councilman Ed Reyes suggested it’s time to take this fight to the state. Someone already did, you should know: this fight was lost in the state legislature last year. AB 1998 went down, a bitter defeat for groups like Heal the Bay, whose then-chief Mark Gold blogged about it.

It was also surprising, since there was some implied momentum from L.A. County’s decision to enact a ban (Gold characterized it as methodical).

It’s possible the state fight would have been easier had the City of LA been on board, or taken any action. But the last significant action before AB 1998 was in 2008. Even then, City Council voted merely to take the action of imposing a quarter-a-bag fee…if the state didn’t pass a bill. In other words, they passed a policy. (A policy, by the way, that subsequently was made moot by the fact that the state prohibited municipalities from dinging people a dime for bags.) The plastic bag industry coalition, at that time involved in litigation around the state over actual rules, dismissed the idea of even wasting time on a challenge. And they did so to the L.A. Times. "Why challenge it?" coalition attorney Stephen Joseph said to Times reporter David Zahniser then. "It's not an ordinance."

Neither is what the City Council did today.

What the council has done is approve a project to look at banning plastic bags. It asked city attorneys to draft an ordinance. The project suggests policy outlines, but they aren’t official. For example, a last-minute tweak would give grace periods to large and small retailers of six and 12 months…once the ordinance is passed. No ban, in other words, would be effective before next year. Amendments added in a two-year check-back, which is, again, a policy, not an action.

The council asked the Sanitation folks, after Councilman Garcetti suggested so, to come back in four months with an environmental impact report. Everything I heard from Public Works and Sanitation Dept. officials suggested they could do that if they “piggyback” off of L.A. County’s environmental impact report. The American Progressive Bag Alliance told me that they prefer the City of LA do its own work. Could they challenge L.A.’s environmental impact report if the city takes the shortcut? Yes. Will they? Who knows. Could they win? I don’t know if anyone’s asked the city attorney that question yet. But there’s the possibility of the delay there.

Environmentalists told us in advance of today’s vote that they were going to feel good about a ban in Los Angeles. When it’s enacted, in whatever form it eventually takes, it’s likely to be the biggest city action in the country. It’ll even affect more people than Hawaii’s statewide ban. But it hasn’t happened. Not yet.

[Correction: 9:35am: An earlier version of this post had a broken link to an LA Now blog post. That broken link was not the cause of anything the LA Times did. We didn't have the correct URL.]