L.A.'s sweeping ban isn’t in the bag yet

A lobbyist representing a consortium of plastic bag producers was roaming the halls of Los Angeles City Hall this week, trying to torpedo Wednesday’s anticipated City Council vote to ban the ubiquitous, flimsy flower that litters the urban landscape and fouls the seashore.

Naturally, environmentalists were in a tizzy, fearing the worst outcome while hoping for the best. Under the proposal by Councilman Paul Koretz, paper bags would also be banned, and Los Angeles would become a national leader in the proliferation of reusable bags.

The worry among enviros was that a weaker and more voluntary alternative proposal, drafted by the bag industry and offering retailers a chance to buy out of the restrictions by paying a fee to the city, might be introduced if a sponsor could be found. They’re also nervous about rumors that former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez himself was in the hall on behalf of the bag people. Nuñez is unloved by green-folk for helping to scuttle a statewide bag ban two years ago. But I couldn’t find anyone who’d actually seen Nuñez. Was he lobbying in broom closets?

I suggested to one council member that there was an easy way to flush him out. Announce a high-end wine tasting in the rotunda, with a junket to study bag disposal in and around four-star European hotels. Nuñez — famous for his champagne tastes while globe-trotting on the state dime — would be first in line.

But when I called Nuñez’s office, a colleague returned the call to say Nuñez was not lobbying in L.A. He was in Sacramento, “providing strategic counsel” on the bag issue.

And what exactly does that mean?

“It means advising clients.”

And who are the clients?

“A consortium of plastic bag manufacturers.”

This person said I needed to talk to Vanessa Rodriguez, who was doing the actual City Hall lobbying for Mercury Public Affairs. But Rodriguez called me from City Hall and said I needed instead to talk to Donna Dempsey of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, who was also making the rounds in City Hall.

I was waiting for the promised call from Dempsey when someone called from Hilex Poly, a plastic bag manufacturer and recycler in South Carolina, saying that no, Dempsey would not be speaking to me. They were trying to get hold of someone else who could answer my questions.

If I might offer a bit of strategic counsel — for far less than whatever Nuñez is charging — it isn’t good PR to act like you’re trying to hide something.

In the end, Mark Daniels of Hilex Poly called to answer my questions. He’s chair of the American Progressive Bag Alliance — are there regressive bag alliances? — and he thinks the L.A. bag ban introduced by Councilman Koretz is “just a terrible idea,” and he threw in “outrageous” for good measure.

Banning plastic and paper bags will cost “a tremendous amount” of sack manufacturing jobs held mostly by Latinos in California, and export them to China, Daniels claims. He also said plastic bags can be and are recycled in great numbers, and charging a buck or two for reusable bags is a hardship for many families. He said the Koretz plan to have stores temporarily charge 10 cents for paper bags until an eventual ban is regressive, and he argued that proponents are over-estimating the amount of bag litter, underestimating the amount of recycling, and exaggerating the amount of damage to marine life caused by bags.

“You think 3 million people are going to clean their reusable bags after every use?” asked Daniels, who claimed that plastic bags account for such a tiny fraction of litter, banning them “will have zero environmental impact.”

He was beginning to sound like a man whose main interest is selling bags.

Zero environmental impact?

By some estimates, the amount of plastic bags in California’s waste stream is in the thousands of tons, many of them are not biodegradable, and the cost of disposal is in the many millions.

I once slogged through Compton Creek with Heal the Bay, before L.A. County supervisors beat the L.A. City Council to the punch and banned plastic bags and reported a 94% reduction in the use of plastic bags, and they were wrapped around plants and layered into the banks like lasagna. Everyone has seen them draped against fences, dancing down streets and clogging storm drains. A 2010 survey by Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup found that plastic bags were second on the floating litter list behind cigarette butts and ahead of food wrappers, caps, lids, cans and bottles. Paper bags rounded out the top 10.

Koretz said only a small fraction of plastic bags manufactured in California end up in Los Angeles, so claims of big local job losses are nonsense. He said there’s a local program in which veterans are producing reusable bags, and he thinks more green jobs would be created with a plastic ban.

Councilman Tom LaBonge, for one, favors the ban on plastic bags, which he says are a particular eyesore along the Los Angeles River. LaBonge said he wonders why the city doesn’t attempt to collect fines for littering as aggressively as it goes after parking and traffic infractions.

But he’s not sure about the ban on paper bags. He wants an updated study on where trash comes from and where it ends up. I’m hearing that other council members may have the same reservations about banning paper.

Koretz’s plan calls for a six-month education period, followed by a ban on plastic and an 18-month period in which paper bags cost 10 cents before being banned altogether. He told me he’s thinking about a revision in which the total ban on paper would be put to a vote at the end of the 18-month trial.

On a personal note, I have several reusable bags, but often leave them in my trunk at the grocery store and get paper bags, which I use to recycle newspapers at my house. If the store begins charging me 10 cents apiece, I’ll stop getting paper bags.

Hey, it works.