Where are all those plastic bags? California voters decided to get rid of them

As a caregiver, Sadie Hodge frequently buys groceries for her elderly and immobile patients.

But Hodge got a surprise Friday morning at the checkout line at a Compton Food 4 Less — a 10-cent-per-bag fee that went into effect after voters narrowly approved the nation’s first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at most grocery stores.

She had “no words” for her annoyance.

“I was just in this store a couple of days ago and today I'm back and I had to buy bags,” said Hodge, who sees those dimes adding up to dollars of extra cost. “I was used to the convenience of not having to think about this, and that has just stopped.”

After a referendum upholding the ban on single-use plastic carryout bags passed with 52% of the vote last week, millions of California shoppers like Hodge will no longer have the option of getting single-use plastic bags at most grocery, convenience and liquor stores, as well as large pharmacies.

Customers will either have to bring their own bags or buy a recycled paper bag or sturdier reusable plastic bag at the store for at least 10 cents.

While many grocery stores have already switched to selling the reusable bags, some stores are still adjusting to the new law and have continued to bag purchases in single-use plastic bags they have on hand.

Environmental groups say the ban will help stem pollution and prevent sea animals from eating or getting entangled in the flimsy plastic that drifts into waterways. Every year, about 15 billion single-use plastic bags are given out to California consumers, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“It’s a victory for all of California, from inland neighborhoods and communities to marine animals off our coast,” said Nick Colin, marketing and communications manager for Heal the Bay, which has been campaigning for local single-use plastic bag bans for more than eight years.

The California Grocers Assn. trade group also backed the measure, which drew a total of $2 million in donations for its campaign.

But plastic bag makers, which have a presence in Los Angeles, have argued a ban on single-use plastic bags would diminish local manufacturing jobs and that money collected from the bag fees wasn’t going toward environmental causes.

Elkay Plastics, a packaging distributor based in Los Angeles, called the restrictions “misguided,” even though single-use plastic bags make up only a “couple percent” of the company’s total business.

“We oppose the ban and believe that there are better alternatives available, such as recycling,”  Bill Lindamood, Elkay Plastics’ marketing director, wrote in an email.

The proposition enacts a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags that was initially passed by the California Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. Shortly after the ban was passed, the American Progressive Bag Alliance trade group qualified a referendum — Proposition 67 — to repeal the measure, which had not yet gone into effect.

Lee Califf, executive director of the trade group, has called the bill a “backroom deal between the California Grocers Assn. and their union friends to scam consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees — all under the guise of environmentalism.”

For many Californians, the new statewide ban comes much later than bag bans in their local cities and counties. As of June, about 150 cities and counties across the state already passed their own carryout bag laws, including Los Angeles, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Some customers welcomed the new ban. 

As Pablo DeLaTorre stood in line at the Superior Grocers supermarket on East Compton Boulevard with his wife, two sons and a full cart of groceries, he said he was in favor of the law, even though he uses a lot of plastic bags. He said he plans to bring his own bags to the grocery store from now on.

“We will be helping the environment,” said DeLaTorre, who works for the Los Angeles Harbor Department at Ports O’Call. “Like I tell my kids, we have to be aware of the impact these plastic bags have had in the oceans and other places.”

One bag manufacturer even decided to get ahead of the proposition.

In 2013, Vernon-based Command Packaging opened a 125,000-square-foot recycling facility in Salinas, Calif., that turns agricultural plastics into resin. That resin is then used to make reusable plastic grocery bags produced at the company’s Southern California plant. It can also be used in reusable plastic bags that are used in the retail and restaurant industries.

Grocery bags make up about 10% to 15% of the company’s business, but that is expected to increase to 25% because of the law, said Cherish Changala, director of marketing at Command Packaging.

“We knew we couldn’t just be making bags and thinking that would be OK long-term,” she said. “We needed to figure out a way to be sustainable.”

Money opposing the referendum poured in from bag makers in other states that wanted to prevent California adopting a landmark law that could spread across the nation.

Hawaii has had a de facto ban on single-use plastic bags since 2015, as all of its most populous counties prohibit non-biodegradable plastic bags. But Oahu’s law has been criticized for allowing compostable single-use bags. 

Four out-of-state plastics manufacturers gave 97% of the contributions to the American Progressive Bag Alliance campaign against California’s law, according to Maplight, a nonpartisan research organization that looks at money in politics.

Major contributions included $2.8 million from South Carolina-based plastic bag manufacturer Hilex Poly and $1.1 million from Texas bag maker Formosa Plastics. In total, opponents raised about $6 million, according to the California secretary of state website.

Indeed, by passing this referendum, California is setting an example for other states and cities that might be looking to deal with litter and other environmental concerns, said Robert Kleinhenz, executive director of research at Beacon Economics.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it shows up across the country in places that are heavily populated,” he said.

Shopper Ida Prince hoped the ban would lead to a cleaner neighborhood.

“People just throw the bags on the ground when they were done with them,” she said as she accompanied her daughter on a trip to Food 4 Less in Compton. '”So I don't mind this at all. I think it is a good thing.”

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

For more business news, follow me @smasunaga

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UPDATES:

Nov. 15, 12 p.m.: This article was updated with information that some stores still have not switched over to selling reusable bags.

This article was originally published on Nov. 12 at 6 a.m.

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