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Opinion

Olive Avenue Confidential: City Council should join fight against plastic

As transparent a concession to corporate lobbies as they come, Sacramento’s recent failure to pass legislation that would have phased out single-use plastic grocery bags in California wasn’t just a great disappointment to environmentalists.

The California Grocers Assn., a trade group that represents thousands of bag-slinging retailers statewide, would also like to put an end to the high-density polyethylene blizzard blowing down streets, blanketing landfills, choking storm drains and drifting out to sea.

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The group, which maintains its Southern California headquarters right here in Burbank, favored a blanket ban that would allow each of its members to go cold turkey on their costly plastic habit without fear of losing a competitive edge.

But on Aug. 31, a majority of state senators sided instead with Virginia-based bag-ban opponents, the American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers such as the Dow Chemical Co. and ExxonMobil.

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That punts the issue to the local level, and what better place to start than at home?

And so if Burbank officials are prepared to embargo disposable shopping bags, the association’s government relations director, Matthew Dodson, said his group is fully on board.

With City Council members expected on Tuesday to discuss city waste reduction priorities with members of the Sustainable Burbank Task Force, the timing couldn’t be better for a bag-ban proposal to make its way onto the local agenda.

The ubiquity of plastic grocery bags has had more of a negative ecological and fiscal impact on Burbank than one might expect.

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Aside from littering sidewalks and clogging storm drains, most of Burbank’s plastic bags end up cluttering a landfill in the hills above the DeBell Golf Course — including those placed in curbside recycling bins, said city recycling specialist Ferris Kawar.

Bags arriving at the Burbank Recycle Center on Flower Street tend to wrap around spinning mechanisms on the sorting lines and gum up the works, creating several hours of unnecessary cleanup each week.

In fact, “Every shift change workers have to climb up on the machines and cut out these bags,” Kawar said.

Similar burdens exist in other California communities, but most have held off discussion while awaiting a state Supreme Court decision on legal challenges against local bans.

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In an ironic legal twist, bag producers have so far been successful in using California Environmental Quality Act requirements to tie up a 2008 Manhattan Beach ban, arguing that cities must first complete extensive and potentially costly environmental impact reports before taking action.

For Burbank and other area cities, however, the outcome of that case may soon matter very little.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works is just weeks away from releasing a detailed environmental impact report on a plastic-bag ban that could save Burbank and other cities time and money.

While the primary purpose of the document is for county supervisors to consider banning retail distribution of disposable bags in unincorporated areas, the overall substance of its more than 700 pages also applies to communities throughout the region.

In other words, cities such as Burbank could basically adopt a version of the county’s report with additional local findings, said county civil engineer Coby Skye, who’s heading up the effort.

Sounds like a good deal to me, but why stop there?

With Glendale and Pasadena also making environmental protection a priority, Burbank officials should take a leadership role in developing uniform rules that would apply equally to our neighbors, reducing any potential disadvantage for local merchants while increasing benefits to residents.

“We’d be very supportive,” Dodson said of a Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena ban, “especially if it was happening across all three cities.”

FYI

Wonder where your recyclables go? Call (818) 238-3900 to register for an Oct. 9 tour of the Burbank Recycle Center.

JOE PIASECKI is an Annenberg Fellow with USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a contributing editor for the Pasadena Weekly. He can be reached at piasecki@usc.edu.


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