Environment & Science

An LA bag ban is the big whale for environmental groups, plastics industry

In this 2011 file photos, customers of Ralphs supermarket use plastic bags to carry their groceries home in Glendale. Glendale is still considering a bags ban.
In this 2011 file photos, customers of Ralphs supermarket use plastic bags to carry their groceries home in Glendale. Glendale is still considering a bags ban.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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Of the 75 communities across the country that have prohibited plastic bags, two-thirds of them are in California. And since an effort to ban plastic bags at larger stores failed in Sacramento a couple of years ago, environmentalists have trained their sights on the state’s largest city. Los Angeles is now their big whale, and this week, its city council could push a ban on single-use bags forward.

“L.A. is the largest city [in California] so it will be a huge success if L.A. moves forward with a bag ban,” says Sarah Sikich, with Heal the Bay. “ I hope it sends a message to the rest of the state of California since so many local smaller cities have adopted some sort of bag ban.”

It’s not just Heal the Bay. Environment California, NRDC, and other groups spent a lot of time, energy and money pushing for a statewide ban a couple of years back. They lost. Plastic bag manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council pumped money into Sacramento during the debate.

But, says Donna Dempsey, it’s not that those groups and others affiliated with them love seeing plastic bags stuck in trees and blowing down streets. Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, says outlawing single-use sacks just doesn’t work.

“San Francisco, when they banned plastic bags a couple of years ago, they did a litter audit before the ban,” she says. The city inventoried and weighed samples of waste. “It not only made no difference there was a slight increase in litter [related to plastic].”

Dempsey’s group is a self-funded lobby made up of about half a dozen bag manufacturers from outside California. She says their goal is education. In Los Angeles, at least, city trucks pick up all plastics for recycling. “Even the cereal plastic bags and bags around diapers, that can all be recycled,” she says, enthusiastically. “We feel that encouraging recycling opportunities really is the better environmental policy to keep these films out of landfills off of streets and back into products.”

Local manufacturer Crown Poly has organized its workers to appear at council hearings. The company and its workers argue that plastic provides good jobs in the region.

Besides, says Dempsey, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, disposable bags make up less than 1 percent of the country’s litter. Heal the Bay’s Sikich counters that the problem isn’t the volume of plastic bags, it’s their fate.

“They’re one of the top 5 items that are commonly found during beach cleanups and unfortunately when they get out into the ocean,” she says. “They break down into smaller bits they look a lot like food for dolphins, sea turtles and other wildlife.”

Sikich says that happened a few weeks back, when a beaked whale washed up dead in Costa Rica. “After the necropsy, which is like an autopsy for animals, was done they found that it got over 20 plastic bags in it.” In fact, the animal had 10 pounds of plastic in its gut.

After the state assembly defeated a California-wide ban, L.A’s city council has moved cautiously towards even considering a ban on single-use bags. When the issue came up last December, councilmembers, while voicing support, simply directed public works officials to report back on how to communicate about a possible ban. Teams of sanitation officials fanned out around the city, talking to shoppers and handing out reusable bags.

At last Thursday’s Heal the Bay gala in Santa Monica, west L.A. councilman Bill Rosendahl said he supports a ban. He’s not sure yet whether enough other members of council will too. “I was just talking the plastic bag strategy with some of the folks here, counting to 8, because it’s a critical part of healing the bay is getting the plastic out of going into the bay.”

With enough yes votes this week, L.A. city council would tell the city attorney to start the legal process of writing an ordinance. It’s not clear whether the city must do a full analysis of the environmental impacts of a bag ban, or whether LA can choose to rely on what neighboring cities and the county of Los Angeles have already done.

Donna Dempsey of the American Progressive Bag Alliance says the city of L.A. should do its on work. “We do feel that it’s a fair thing for LA to do its own environmental impact report, because everywhere is different, and they really need to focus on the situation in their city,” she says.

City officials and advocates all say it would be months before a real ordinance would make its way back to the L.A. city council. Even then, a ban on single use bags could, as in other communities, include half a year or a year more of phase-in time before the rule takes effect.

This story has been corrected to reflect that, as Sarah Sikich says, LA is the largest city in the state, not in the nation.