Compostable bags no solution for L.A. area

Times staff writer

San Francisco’s landmark ban on common plastic shopping bags last month inspired pundits and politicians to predict that other cities would soon follow suit. But what worked there might prove tough to do in the Los Angeles area.

That’s because the region -- where plastic bags often litter roadsides, clog storm drains, kill marine life and become an airborne nuisance in windy weather -- lacks the capacity to process the biodegradable plastic bags that San Francisco now requires of large grocery and drugstores, environmental experts say.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 12, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Plastic bags: An article in Tuesday’s California section about the difficulty of banning plastic grocery bags in Los Angeles County misstated the number of bags that are discarded each year. The article stated that 19 million bags were disposed of statewide, including about 6 million in L.A. County. The correct figures are 19 billion and 6 billion, respectively.

In fact, biodegradable -- or compostable -- bags could even contaminate the city of Los Angeles’ recycling system because they taint other kinds of recyclable plastic when thrown out together in curbside bins.


The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to take up a measure today that proposes looking into how the county should deal with plastic-bag consumption. It will also weigh the pros and cons of a ban similar to the one San Francisco supervisors passed in late March.

Any policy adopted by the supervisors would apply to unincorporated areas of the county and possibly cities with which the county contracts services.

In the city of Los Angeles, a plastic-bag ban was considered a few years ago. But the City Council chose instead to simply include the bags in regular curbside recycling. Some cities, such as Malibu, have barred grocery stores, restaurants and other food outlets from using expanded polystyrene packaging, such as foam cups or clamshell takeout boxes, but haven’t taken action on bags.

No one disputes that plastic-bag use -- and subsequent waste -- is a problem. Californians dispose of an estimated 19 million plastic bags a year. L.A. County residents probably contribute about 6 million of those, experts said.

But if the Los Angeles area wants to emulate its eco-friendly neighbor to the north and nix standard plastic bags, it might have to settle for paper or canvas.

“We’re all for any community that wants to pursue a ban on plastic bags,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit group based in Sacramento.


“But if I was going to Los Angeles or any other communities that are thinking they might take this approach, we would propose they look at a straight-out ban on plastic bags” -- including compostable plastic bags, he said.

San Francisco’s ban, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, gives major supermarket chains with more than $2 million in annual sales six months to make the switch to compostable plastic bags. Pharmacies and retailers with at least five locations have one year. The ban will be enforced with fines up to $500.

The policy put San Francisco on a list of cities, such as Paris, and countries, including Bangladesh, Ireland, South Africa and Taiwan, that have either imposed a tax on plastic bags or outlawed them.

The movement speaks to the growing concern among governments about plastic-bag waste. Made from petroleum, the bags are ubiquitous, virtually never decompose and can be lifted off landfills by a gust of wind. Usually, they end up in streets, drains or the ocean, where plastic debris is said to kill more than 100,000 marine animals a year.

That’s enough to pain the conscience of any green-minded Californian. And civic leaders who like to tout their areas’ clean streets are quickly deflated at the sight of rogue bags blowing in on a breeze.

“The government really has woken up to how this is an issue,” said Gary Boze, spokesman for the county’s Department of Public Works. “We are such a large consumer of plastics, it almost requires that we give some attention to it.”

Compostable bags might sound like a convenient solution, but they require specific conditions to decompose. San Franciscans can throw out the bags, which are usually made from corn or potato starch, with their recyclable food waste in special curbside bins.

Los Angeles County, however, does not offer curbside recycling. The city of L.A. offers it to some residents, but not for food waste. Also, only a handful of recycling facilities in the Los Angeles area can break down food waste and compostable bags, and they’d probably struggle to handle the load if all residents started using the eco-friendly bags.

“When you talk about making something compostable, it’s great,” said Neil Guglielmo, a division manager with the city’s Bureau of Sanitation. “But the downside is: Can you then actually compost it? I’d hate to see compostable bags end up having to go to a landfill.”

The city of Los Angeles does allow residents to throw out plastic bags with regular recycling. The discarded plastic is then pressed into planks to make benches, piers and backyard decks.

But when compostable plastic is mixed with standard plastic, it makes the batch structurally unsound, experts and officials said. And the result can only be tossed into a landfill.

Even if Los Angeles County had the infrastructure to process compostable plastic, residents who shop in other counties could still upset the carefully orchestrated system. “There’s clearly people who live in Ventura County but do their shopping in Los Angeles,” Murray said, “and vice versa.”

Some also question whether compostable bags make financial sense at the production end. A typical plastic bag costs about a penny to produce, a paper one about 6 cents and a compostable bag about 8 cents.

The California Grocers Assn. believes a better way to control plastic waste would be to train clerks and baggers to use fewer bags and encourage stores to adopt their own recycling programs.

“If someone goes in and buys a magazine and a pack of gum, is it environmentally proper to give them a big paper bag when a small plastic bag might be more appropriate?” asked Peter Larkin, president of the grocers group.

Among the alternatives the city and county could consider instead of compostable plastic are imposing a small fee on regular plastic bags or encouraging stores to offer discounts to consumers who bring their bags back, said Mark Bernstein, a USC professor of political science who studies environmental policy.

Or better yet, environmental advocates say: Make consumers use reusable sacks, such as canvas. “That’s the absolute best thing you can do,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California, a San Francisco-based environmental group.

City of Los Angeles officials, although interested in learning more about compostable bags, are looking into reusable ones, Guglielmo said. The city is considering a pilot program with the state in which a grocery chain would give canvas bags to customers, he said.

For the county, all options are on the table, said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a co-sponsor of the measure scheduled for consideration today when the board meets at 9:30 a.m. at the downtown Hall of Administration, 500 W. Temple St.

Said Burke, “We need to get experts to come up with something that works in Los Angeles and meets our criteria.”



Paper versus plastic

Paper bags

U.S. patents issued in mid-1800s. Usually made from 35%-50% recycled paper. Can decompose in 30 to 60 days, or not at all depending on landfill conditions.

Cost: About 6 cents.

Plastic bags

Developed in 1957; shopping bags introduced in 1977. Petroleum-based; some made from recycled plastic. Recyclable, but almost never fully decompose.

Cost: About 1 cent.

Compostable plastic bags

Developed about 15 years ago; soon to be required in San Francisco. Typically made from cornstarch. In ideal conditions, decompose in 60 to 90 days.

Cost: About 8 cents.

Did you know?

* Plastic bags account for four of every five bags handed out at grocery stores.

* Production of paper bags generates 70% more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.

* Reusing or recycling 1 ton of plastic bags saves the energy equivalent of 11 barrels of oil.

* Reusing or recycling 1 ton of paper bags saves 13 to 17 trees.


Sources: Film and Bag Federation; Californians Against Waste; Environmental Protection Agency; Ohio State University


Los Angeles Times