City hesitant to regulate plastic bags

Despite a recent vote by L.A. County Supervisors to prohibit the use of disposable plastic shopping bags in unincorporated areas such as La Crescenta, officials in La Cañada Flintridge aren't in any hurry to follow with regulations of their own.

"I haven't heard a peep from anybody in town in terms of desire to enact such an ordinance," said Mayor Donald Voss, echoing others at City Hall who say a similar government action doesn't currently appear to be needed here, though minds aren't necessarily closed to the issue.

While plastic bags are often discussed as a blight issue in other, more urbanized areas — in some places they litter the streets, clog storm drains and ultimately head to landfills after clogging up sorting machines at city recycling centers — city officials say responsible use and reuse has kept them from becoming a problem here.

"Most of our residents have a high level of awareness. We don't have issues with plastic bags littering our streets, and our waste haulers and street sweepers haven't expressed concern about these bags in our waste stream," said Mary Goytia Strauss, senior management analyst for the city.

The Nov. 16 ordinance for unincorporated areas requires a number of large supermarkets and pharmacies to stop providing disposable plastic bags in July and extend the ban to smaller stores by January 2012.

Shoppers who ask for disposable paper bags instead of relying on reusable ones would have to pay a 10-cent surcharge per paper bag at the point of purchase.

Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who represents Foothill communities, voted against the ban in a three-to-one decision for which Supervisor Don Knabe was absent.

"I voted 'no' on the ban based on the facts that it is not sound public policy, and it also only increases costs and regulations on the 1.5 million residents and the businesses residing in the county's unincorporated areas — and not the county's 88 cities," Antonovich wrote in a statement about the ban.

"At a time of economic uncertainty and with large numbers of businesses leaving our state, this is not the appropriate time in our efforts to clean up the environment to impose additional regulations on businesses," he continued.

The California Grocers Association, which represents 6,000 food stores and, along with Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental group based in Santa Monica, helped lead an effort earlier this year to impose a similar ban statewide, supported the new county regulations.

A spokesman for the trade association has said the group supports regulation at the municipal level that would apply fairly and equally to all retailers.

"It will take time to get used to the ban. Other than that, I don't see it as a hardship on the consumer other than remembering to bring your bag to the store," said La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce President Pat Anderson, who shops with reusable bags unless she forgets to bring them along.

Not having to purchase disposable bags "is one less expense for the retailers," she added.

Municipal ordinances regulating plastic bag use have faced challenges from plastic bag manufacturers, who supporters expect may attempt to challenge the new county ordinance under Proposition 26, which redefines some fees as taxes and was approved by voters earlier this month.

In 2009 in La Cañada Flintridge, as much as 77% of trash — a measure by weight that includes construction refuse, which makes up the bulk of the city's total waste — is diverted from landfills, according to city documents.

A 1989 state law requires only 50% diversion.

Last year the city generated 15,926 tons of trash, roughly 4.1 pounds per person per day, which was down from 22,271 tons at 5.6 pounds per person per day in 2007, when the diversion rate was 69%.

In 2005, the city's waste diversion rate was only 53%.

The diverted waste is recycled through various methods.

Plastic bags, however, are not recyclable through the city's blue-bin collection system and must be returned to stores for recycling, Strauss explained.

But, "residents are doing an awesome job of recycling and reusing. We don't encourage them to place plastic bags in recycling containers, but they seem to be doing a good job of returning them to grocery stores, [they] own reusable bags or are reusing plastic bags in a way that's not an issue in the city," she said.

In March, a city Green Task Force convened by Councilwoman Laura Olhasso recommended the city further engage in various methods of conservation outreach and codify eco-friendly efforts, including the city's increased trash diversion levels.

Voss said that the county's new ordinance might have the unintended consequence of forcing struggling residents to purchase reusable bags or pay for paper ones.

He also pointed out that consumers often find other household uses for disposable bags.

A possible ordinance is "something I wouldn't mind studying if I thought [plastic bags] were contributing to a problem, but I would have to be shown that is the case," Olhasso said. "I certainly wouldn't want to put an ordinance out there just for the sake of having an ordinance."

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