Three years after it put off a vote on banning plastic carry-out bags at supermarkets and large retail stores, the city of Los Angeles is poised to try again this week. This time, the ban should be passed, with modifications.
Unlike bag ordinances in other municipalities throughout California — including L.A. County — the proposal under consideration Tuesday by the City Council’s Energy and Environment Committee also would ban paper bags, depriving consumers who haven’t fully adopted the reusable-tote habit of a convenient and less environmentally damaging option. Most cities that have banned plastic bags have imposed a fee of 10 cents or so on paper bags, enough to discourage their unnecessary use but low enough to provide customers with a choice when they need one.
For that matter, a fee on both plastic and paper bags makes the most sense because it maximizes consumer choice while still cutting back tremendously on single-use bags. Fees on plastic bags have been enormously successful as far away as Ireland and as close as your nearest IKEA, reducing use of the bags by 90% or more. But the California Legislature unwisely prohibited municipalities from levying fees on plastic, leaving policymakers seeking to protect the environment with few options.
Plastic carry-out bags are an environmental scourge. They’re the third most common trash item on California’s beaches, ultimately finding their way into the ocean, where they become part of those stews of floating plastic debris in both the Pacific and Atlantic known as garbage patches. Blown easily by breezes, the bags have also become major litter nuisances on land, costing $25 million a year to clean up statewide.
Paper bags aren’t without environmental impacts — for example, they are heavier to transport than plastic, thereby using more fossil fuels — but they do not pose a threat to the ocean or contribute significantly to litter. For that matter, the small, handle-less plastic bags used to protect produce (and this newspaper) are not included in bans because they tend to be recycled or disposed of properly. Only 5% of the 120,000 tons of carry-out plastic bags with handles used in California each year are recycled.
The committee should pass the ban but amend it to impose a fee on paper bags rather than a ban. And then the full council should pass the proposal. A ban here on carry-out plastic bags would not only drastically reduce the number of such bags fouling the environment but would encourage more cities in the state to ban them and prod the Legislature to implement a sensible statewide policy on the bags — which grocers would prefer to the growing patchwork of municipal ordinances.