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A flood of plastic bags, no solutions

Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes stood Tuesday on the bank of the L.A. River and pointed at the white plastic bags hanging from scruffy trees in the waterway.

“You think this is bad?” he said. “You should see it around February or March when it gets really nasty. There are plastic bags entangled everywhere.”

We’d ventured to this most dubious of L.A. landmarks as, hundreds of miles to the north, San Francisco on Tuesday became the first city in the nation to officially ban use of traditional plastic bags by supermarkets.

The city now requires large grocery stores and pharmacies to use paper bags or newfangled biodegradable plastic bags made from corn or potato starch.

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Reyes has spearheaded efforts in L.A. to promote recycling of plastic bags. I asked him to accompany me to the river so we could discuss whether a San Francisco-style ban would work down here.

“Maybe,” Reyes said. “But first let’s give what we have right now a chance. Los Angeles is not San Francisco. We are much bigger and much more diverse. We need to look at things that would be effective.”

Garbage is one of those issues that most people would rather not even think about. In our blissfully materialistic, throwaway society, it’s hard to even conceive of the volume of trash generated, not to mention how and where we get rid of it.

In fact, L.A. County alone produces at least 36,400 tons of solid waste every day, according to county officials. Of this amount, about a third ends up in the Puente Hills Landfill off the Pomona Freeway, the largest landfill in the nation.

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Puente Hills is expected to be full by 2013. After that, L.A. has contracted to put its trash on trains and haul it each night to the Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County, where it’s believed we’ll be able to dump our garbage for the next 200 years.

If that doesn’t work, engineers are already looking at the possibility of constructing an even bigger dump at Eagle Mountain near Joshua Tree National Park.

“We’ve made a pretty good dent in getting materials recycled and reused, but we still generate a lot of solid waste,” said Pat Freemon, an engineer at the county sanitation districts.

So back to plastic bags. It’s estimated that Californians use 19 billion of the things every year, the vast majority of which end up being thrown out rather than recycled.

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San Francisco’s solution is to require supermarkets and pharmacies that gross more than $2 million annually to use only paper bags or ones made of more environmentally friendly, biodegradable plastic.

One catch is that these eco-nice bags aren’t intended to be recycled. Instead, they’re supposed to make their way to compost heaps. The onus is on consumers to remember which plastic bag goes in the blue recycling bin and which one goes in the green composting bin.

Another catch is that the biodegradable bags cost more. The California Grocers Assn. estimates that a traditional plastic bag costs just a penny or two, whereas a paper bag can run 5 to 8 cents and a biodegradable plastic bag can cost as much as 15 cents.

“Retailers will attempt to absorb the cost,” said a straight-faced association spokesman, Dave Heylen. “But if it can’t be absorbed, this is a cost that will eventually be passed on to consumers.”

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He said his organization, which speaks for about 500 supermarket and food-store operators in California and Nevada, opposed the San Francisco ordinance and would oppose any efforts to adopt similar regulations elsewhere in the state.

The association instead favors measures to promote recycling of plastic bags, which places the burden squarely on consumers to remember to bring their unused bags back to stores.

That, of course, is a stretch. Many people simply can’t be bothered to schlep their empty bags around. Others (like me) end up hoarding plastic bags for use as garbage containers or for toting lunches to work.

It’d be nice if we all purchased those fancy canvas bags offered by supermarkets and carried them to and from the store every time we go shopping. But most of us don’t. That’s just the way it is.

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Standing by the L.A. River, Reyes admitted that the first inclination for most consumers won’t be to recycle every plastic bag they come across.

“We have to educate people,” he said. “It’s a process.”

And if that doesn’t work, Reyes said, then it’ll be time to look at more aggressive approaches, such as what San Francisco is doing.

He gazed out at the bags dangling from the trees as the brownish river flowed past.

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“The sad reality is that we’re killing ourselves for the instant gratification of buying and throwing things away,” Reyes said. “We need to be doing things not for ourselves but for the generations that will come after us.”

And plastic bags are the place to start?

“It’s a small gesture,” Reyes replied. “But it’s a significant one.”

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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