Just saying no to paper or plastic

Times Staff Writer

It’s a tale of two communities, told through bags.

Pacific Palisades and El Monte -- like communities statewide -- are bedeviled by plastic shopping bags that litter streets and waterways. Each year, activists say, more than 6 billion plastic shopping bags are used in Los Angeles County alone.

So to alert the public to the problem, activists declared Thursday “A Day Without a Bag” and headed to stores in Highland Park, Long Beach, Malibu and other communities to hand out free reusable plastic bags. In El Monte and Pacific Palisades, the anti-bag campaign played out in vastly different -- but also similar -- ways.

In El Monte, two volunteers handed out bags in front of Gonzalez Northgate Market. In Pacific Palisades, 20 volunteers transformed a corner near boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops into the staging ground for a full-scale, tightly organized operation.


On the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Swarthmore Avenue, Marie Steckmest staffed a table stocked with free Starbucks coffee for the public and reusable bags in pink, green, red and black.

She busied herself handing out bags and information on environmental issues to passersby and giving instructions to volunteers who fanned out to two more locations a few blocks away.

Karen Bergman of Venice selected a pink bag, though she said she already had a full stock of reusable bags in her car.

“If I forget my bags when I go to the store, I buy more,” she said. She has even taken to buying biodegradable bags instead of reusing old plastic bags to scoop after her dog.

The volunteers came stocked with more than 1,000 bags, some donated by Heal the Bay, others by Palisades Cares, an environmental group that Steckmest heads. When they ran out, a volunteer headed to a high-end clothing store with a question: Did the store have any reusable bags? The volunteer returned with about 100 pink bags with “elyse walker” stamped in gold.

Steckmest is a full-time volunteer organizer who has been involved in environmental issues for 18 months. She was moved to action when she saw “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore’s popular documentary on the perils of global warming.


“I saw it and I thought, ‘I can do things. I can organize things.’ So I did.”

In El Monte, the two volunteers had no Starbucks. No environmental literature. And their bags came in one color, green.

But the reception from the public wasn’t that different from that in Pacific Palisades.

Nearly everyone -- men, women and their children -- walking out of Gonzalez Northgate Market asked for a bag. One of them was Bertha Regalado Placencia, 34, who is in Los Angeles on vacation from the small town of El Refugio Paradores, Jalisco, where she owns the town convenience store.

She understands the cause, she said. Buying plastic bags is expensive for a store owner, so she fills every bag up with as many groceries as possible, she said. “Here, if you buy toilet paper, they put it in one bag. A bottle of Downey, they put it in one bag. We don’t do that,” she said.

She was given her bag by Nathan Baird, 28, who along with fellow volunteer Refugio Mata, 28, wore a green Santa hat. They came with 300 bags and it took about 90 minutes to pass them all out -- a pace on par with Pacific Palisades.

For Mata, who worked with labor unions and community organizations before joining Heal the Bay, the environmental movement is an extension of the social justice movement.

“When you talk about environmental protection you have to ask, ‘What communities are most affected?’ Usually it’s the poorest communities,” he said.

As Mata prepared to go home, Emilia Davila, 70, of El Monte stopped to ask for a bag, only to learn they were all gone.

“I wanted my little bag,” Davila said. She wanted it as a recuerdo, she said, a keepsake, to put on a shelf at home, along with other giveaways she’s saved.

“Creams, soaps, toothpaste. My daughter tells me I should use them, but I like to keep them,” she said.