Hey, L.A. shoppers, what would you pay for a plastic bag now?

On Jan. 1, Los Angeles became the nation's largest city to ban plastic bags.
(Ted Rall / For The Times )

On New Year’s Day, Los Angeles became the biggest city in the United State to ban plastic bags.

Mayhem was anticipated. OK, not mayhem. Just extreme agitation. “If they don’t give me a bag, what am I going to do?” The Times quoted an “incredulous” William Macary as saying at a Wal-Mart back in June. “If I pay money, I want a bag.”

I feel for him. If I pay money, I want a pony. And a car. And those $350 Italian shirts I lust for when I go to Vegas.

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Believe it or not, plastic bags were originally introduced as the eco-friendly alternative to paper bags. No more chopping down trees, etc. Now they’re widely viewed as a scourge.

But even tree-huggers hate inconvenience. I caught a sneak preview of how some entitled Angeleno consumers might greet a plastic-free 2014 last year, when I visited Washington. The nation’s capital requires merchants to charge shoppers 5 cents per plastic (or paper) bag.

“Want a bag? It’s a nickel,” the guy at the sandwich shop told me. It’s a nominal fee, but I said no. I’m typical. Most Washingtonians prefer to bring their own bags or do without. The bag fee is a big success, having greatly reduced litter in the D.C. area.

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Why not cough up the nickel? It’s not because of the wasteful “single use” factor. You can reuse plastic bags for your trash. To pick up after your dog. Whatever. Anyway, much of the stuff you carry in plastic bags is essentially single use too. Groceries don’t last forever.

Washington’s fee makes people realize that plastic bags are worth nothing. And no one wants to pay something for nothing. It may be hard to believe, but Washington’s experience is clear: In a few short months, we’re going to wonder why we ever wanted plastic bags in the first place.

I prefer Los Angeles’ outright ban on plastic bags, though. There’s nothing grosser than plastic bags hanging from tree branches, blowing in the breeze. Why tolerate even one? A ban is better. But we’re missing out on D.C.'s game-theory economic experiment.

Or maybe not.

We’ll have the option of paying 10 cents for a paper bag, which at least doesn’t end up blowing around the streets and decorating bushes. Will we? I’m betting the answer is no.


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