Enacting one of the nation's most aggressive environmental measures, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to ban plastic grocery bags in unincorporated areas of the county.
The vote was 3-1, supported by Supervisors Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and Zev Yaroslavsky, and opposed by Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. Supervisor Don Knabe was absent.
The ban, which will cover nearly 1.1 million residents countywide, is to the point: “No store shall provide to any customer a plastic carryout bag.” An exception would be made for plastic bags that are used to hold fruit, vegetables or raw meat in order to prevent contamination with other grocery items.
If grocers choose to offer paper bags, they must sell them for 10 cents each, according to the ordinance. The revenue will be retained by the stores to purchase the paper bags and educate customers about the law.
“Plastic bags are a pollutant. They pollute the urban landscape. They are what we call in our county urban tumbleweed,” Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.
Mark Gold, president of the Santa Monica environmental group Heal the Bay, said previous county efforts to promote recycling of plastic bags at grocery stores was a failure.
“You cannot recycle your way out of the plastic bag problem,” Gold said. “The cost of convenience can no longer be at the expense of the environment.”
The measure is a significant win for environmental groups, which suffered a major defeat in Sacramento at the end of August with the failure of the state Senate to pass a sweeping plastic bag ban that won the support of the state Assembly and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger amid heavy and costly lobbying by plastic bag manufacturers.
But the ban could cause confusion. The action by the Board of Supervisors only covers the unincorporated areas of L.A. County, covering some neighborhoods like Altadena, Valencia and Rowland Heights, but doesn't cover 88 cities in L.A. County. City councils could adopt a similar ordinance.
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich raised the prospect that small mom-and-pop shops could suffer financially because they won’t be able to buy paper and reusable bags in great volume, and could force low-income people to buy bags to pick up pet waste or carry their lunch.
“At a time of economic uncertainty, with a large number of businesses leaving our state and community this would not be an appropriate time ... to impose this additional regulation,” Antonovich said.
Opponents of the ban told the supervisors that a legal challenge to the ban is still a possibility.
With the Tuesday vote, L.A. County’s measure is more stringent than similar bans adopted elsewhere in California, Gold said.
San Francisco’s ban, which passed three years ago, is less restrictive because it still permits grocers to offer bioplastic bags made from corn starch, which are imperfect because they also do not degrade in the ocean, Gold said. Bans in San Francisco and Malibu also do not add a surcharge on paper bags, Gold said, which does not give consumers an incentive to switch to reusable cloth bags.
Washington, D.C., decided to tackle the issue not with a ban on any kind of bag, but a 5-cent surcharge per any item of disposable bag.
Gold, however, said an outright ban will be more effective on reducing the 6 billion plastic bags that are used in L.A. County every year, which according to the county, account for 25% of the litter picked up here.
Government figures show that just 5% of plastic bags are recycled. Last week, the American Chemistry Council, one of the chief opponents of the ban, warned L.A. County leaders that the proposed ordinance and fee on paper bags fall under the voting requirements of Proposition 26. The initiative, which passed this month, reclassifies most regulatory fees on industry as "taxes" requiring a two-thirds vote in government bodies or in public referendums, rather than a simple majority.
County Counsel Andrea Ordin said Tuesday that the 10-cent surcharge on paper bags is not a fee covered by Prop. 26 because the revenue is being kept by the grocers and not directed to a government agency.
Photo via Heal the Bay