L.A. Poised to Ban Plastic Bags: Surf City Vote Hinges on EIR Cost

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

Los Angeles might soon be joining a growing web of California jurisdictions banning single-use, plastic carry-out bags.

The L.A. City Council had earlier expressed support for some sort of plastic bag ban, but controversy over whether a fee should be placed on paper bags – or whether they should be banned too – had slowed the process. On April 4, the council’s Energy and Environment Committee recommended a gradual phase-in approach consisting of a series of 6-month steps starting with a grace period, followed by a ban on just plastic bags, then next a 10-cent charge on paper bags, and finally a ban on both paper and plastic. The ban would not include the plastic bags used for fresh produce or meats.

It’s not a done deal yet because the full city council still needs to weigh in, but if all goes according to plan, the ban should take effect before the end of 2012.

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 percent for plastic and 21 percent 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. On March 23, L.A. county’s ordinance banning plastic bags and placing a 10-cent fee on paper bags was upheld in a Superior Court ruling. 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 Santa Monica, Long Beach, Manhattan Beach, Calabasas and Malibu in the south. More ban ordinances are in the works in Pasadena, Dana Point, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach, to name a few.

A pivotal California Supreme Court decision in July 2011 eased the way for local plastic bag bans by ruling that Manhattan Beach, because it is a small community, did not have to complete a lengthy study of the environmental impact of disposable paper bags before baring retailers from dispensing plastic ones. Such environmental impact reports (EIRs) are costly to prepare, and the plastic bag industry has used them to block municipalities from enacting a local bag ban by suing when an EIR has not been filed. L.A. city plans to borrow from the EIR L.A. county used in implementing its ordinance.

The Huntington Beach City Council first considered a local plastic bag ban last August and has since drafted its own EIR which, if all goes well, should be finalized in June, according to Councilwoman Connie Boardman. The final EIR will include responses to issues raised in the public comment period which just closed on March 26.

Still unsettled is whether a fee on paper bags would remain at 10 cents, as originally proposed, or upped to 25 cents to better motivate consumers to switch to reusable bags, the ultimate aim. Anyone participating in either the California Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children or the Supplemental Food Program would be exempt from any such fee.

The biggest sticking point in Huntington Beach, however, is the $29,000 tab for the EIR. The council had stipulated at the get-go that the city would go ahead with the EIR but not release it, and thus no vote on the ban would occur, until its cost is reimbursed in full by outside entities. A fundraising effort is underway, coordinated by the Surfrider Foundation which is donating $3,000. If the fundraising efforts are unsuccessful and the EIR remains in storage, $29,000 will have been spent for nothing.

Another sticking point with some council members is that they want other cities to take the lead before Huntington Beach should act, if ever, to ban plastic bags. Among plastic bag ban supporters, however, there is hope that with the continued passage of local bans, especially the one in L.A. city, a tipping point will be reached soon for a successful run at 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 stores 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 of its kind in the nation.

Plastic bag litter is not only an eyesore on land but also fouls waterways 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, like all plastics derived from petroleum, they are non-biodegradable. Rather, they fragment over time into smaller bits of plastic thought to persist in the ocean environment beyond any meaningful human timescale.

The Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation has been measuring 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. Preliminary analysis of ocean samples collected less than a decade later indicate 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 and in amounts sometimes exceeding twice that of zooplankton.

The Save the Plastic Bag Coalition has made it their business to try to debunk the environmental claims made by plastic bag ban proponents (visit 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 pace at which local bans are cropping up all over California is picking up and hopefully marking the beginning of the end of the single-use, plastic carryout bag era.


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