L.A. Bag Story

L.A. Bag Story

Plastics ban movement nets victory; opponents gird up.

Bag ban proponents are claiming a major victory in Los Angeles, but opponents are pushing harder than ever to emphasize recycling and reuse alternatives instead.

The Los Angeles City Council on May 23 approved a ban on the distribution of single-use plastic bags in large grocery and pharmaceutical stores. Now the proposed ban is subject to an environmental impact report, and city officials will draw up an ordinance. Those moves will be completed in the next four months, says Andy Schrader, deputy of environmental affairs and sustainability for Paul Koretz, District 5 council member and main sponsor of the proposal.

If enacted, the ordinance would begin with a six-month education period, Schrader says. After six months, all single-use plastic bags would be banned from larger stores. Paper bags would be available during this period. After one year from the time the law would take effect, paper bags would be available at these stores for 10 cents apiece.

Los Angeles has nearly 4 million residents, who generate 2.7 billion plastic bags, says the environmental group Californians Against Waste, which has pushed for the ban.

The group’s executive director, Mark Murray, says at this point approval “is a foregone conclusion. All that’s left to determine is whether it will take effect Jan. 1, 2013 or July 1, 2013.”

Like much else on this issue, that’s not the way Mark Daniels sees it. Daniels is chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance and vice president of sustainability & environmental policy for Hilex Poly, a leading plastic bag maker.

“The city has some hurdles to go over before it can be an ordinance,” he says. “We will continue to work with the city and retailers to educate them that there are much better much better alternatives out there with regards to use and recycling of  plastic bags.”

Still, bag bans have been piling up. Los Angeles would represent the 49th city or county in California to approve bag bans.  Seattle, Hawaii and Austin, Texas, have passed plastic bag bans or restrictions in the past six months.

“I think this is a huge impact, and it spells the end of single-use plastic bags, at least in California,” Murrays says. Twelve more California jurisdictions are poised to adopt bag bans this summer, he adds.

And it could make the issue more than just a California-dominated trend. “I think it’s now becoming a big city thing,” he says. Ultimately, it’s a cost issue. “In Los Angeles what carried the day is what plastic bags cost cities on curbside recycling, storm drains, litter cleanup ... the numbers were huge.” In Los Angeles the cost adds up to more than $75 million annually. “With government revenue shortfalls and local funding cuts in this state, this became a no brainer for them.”

By contrast, recycling has diverted only about 3 percent of the bags, he claims. “A ban is much more successful than five years of effort with recycling,” Murray says.

That 3-percent claim is part of what the bag alliance is combating. Daniels says many retailers declined to participate in that study, spurring a disclaimer that environmental groups ignore. It’s part of what’s prompting the group to become more active. “We’re seeing more isinformation that we want to have corrected,” Daniels says.  

The proposed Los Angeles bag ban puts jobs at risk, doesn’t reduce litter, leads to the importation of bags and carries a regressive, hidden tax, he says. A California waste characterization study showed bags representing three-tens of 1 percent of the recycling stream. His company, Hilex Poly, recycles more than 50 million pounds of polyethylene bags annually. The bag recycling rate has been increasing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and has reached 14.8 percent.

“We’re proud of what we’re doing,” Daniels says of the industry. “There’s 30 to 32 percent recycled content in our product.”

Plastic bags also have a home reuse rate of about 70 percent. “It’s really one consumer product that is highly reused and recycled.”

The bag alliance, which represents more than 30,000  production and recycling workers, plans to continue its education counter-attack. “We think the recycle, reuse, reduce mantra of the EPA is the right way to go, and we believe we’re following that to a tee.”

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