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L.A.'s bag ban takes some adjustments

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I'm on board with the city's new plastic bag ban, but saving the environment isn't as easy or as tidy as I imagined.

Six weeks in and I'm still trying to navigate the lifestyle changes that going bagless requires.

I'm hauling around a half-dozen reusable bags, scattered across the floor and seats of my car. Yet I still wind up at the checkout counter stuffing groceries into my purse.

I know I'm not the only one too forgetful to take their bags inside the market, and too cheap to pay the dime a paper bag now requires.

I see people like me all the time, trying to make it from the store to their cars without dropping the bottles of juice in both hands and the carton of eggs wedged under an arm.

Buying groceries requires more planning than it did before the ban. Now I have to make a shopping list so I'll know how many bags to bring. The insulated tote with the zipper top? Or will the flimsy-handled ones be enough?

Then there are questions of market etiquette: Should I be embarrassed if I hand my bags to the cashier squashed in a bunch, instead of neatly folded? Is it OK to roam the aisles dropping items into my bag, or does that make me look like a shoplifter?

And how do I wean myself from those pollution-producing little plastic bags that I need to line the trash cans in the bathroom, wrap my wet towels when I leave the gym, and stuff in my pockets when I take my dogs on a walk to do their business?

Heal the Bay, the environmental group that's been promoting the ban, suggests that we clean up after our pets using the wrappers from loaves of bread or the liners that come in cereal boxes.

Cereal box liners? Really?

I think I need a trip to the hardware store, where plastic bags are still legal and free.

::

City officials say that the change has gone smoothly since Los Angeles became the largest city in the nation to ban plastic bags.

The Department of Public Works has been answering questions and fielding grumbles about consumer inconvenience and reports of stores not following the law.

Last month, a few Target stores in the San Fernando Valley were outed by customers for not complying. The chain's corporate leaders apparently didn't know that North Hollywood, Canoga Park and Granada Hills were in the city of Los Angeles. "They seemed to think those stores were exempt," city environmental specialist Jinderpal Bhandalsaid.

Bhandal said the city received about 10 calls a day when the law first took effect. "Now we get five or six calls a day... in a city with 4 million people," he said. "I'd say people are adjusting to it."

It's too soon to know how much difference it will make. San Jose, which imposed a ban three years ago, saw a marked decrease in plastic bag refuse: 84% fewer bags in storm drains and 59% fewer bags on city streets during the law's first year.

Statistics like that make me feel virtuous when I hand over my bags to the cashier.

::

Now that the new law is in effect, I hope the ban's promoters stop downplaying the downsides and educate us about what the switch requires. Like making sure our bags are clean.

Research by the University of Pennsylvania found a surge in emergency room visits and a 46% increase — from 12 to 17 — in deaths from food-borne illness the year after San Francisco banned throwaway bags.

A separate survey of bags being used by Californians found more than half were tainted with harmful bacteria and 8% contaminated with E. coli.

The experts say that we will be fine if we designate specific bags for meat or fish, and wash those bags after every shopping trip. Other bags should be regularly cleaned in the washer or soaked in hot, soapy water with vinegar or lemon juice.

Add that to your list of shopping chores: Unload your groceries, then run a bath for your bags.

That's more work than I bargained for. Count me among the 97% of shoppers who admit that they have never scrubbed their bags.

We lose even more safety points when we store our bags in hot, stuffy cars, where bacteria can multiply. But of course, if we don't carry them in the car, we wind up bagless in the grocery store line.

I'm not complaining. The plastic bag ban is a worthy change. I just can't imagine living without them.

That's why I began hoarding them months ago, before the ban made them verboten. Now I have dozens crammed inside my cabinets in case I need them.

The good news is that they are not polluting the ocean. The bad news is that I can't open my pantry without plastic bags raining down on me.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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