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Los Angeles County residents will be encouraged to take reusable bags to the store under a new ordinance approved Tuesday that will ban the use of plastic shopping bags in unincorporated portions of the county. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the ban in what some hope will be a model for other cities and counties to follow.
Approximately 50 people staged a rally outside the Kenneth Hahn County Hall of Administration prior to the Board’s meeting, and called for the ban on the grounds that the bags cause excessive waste and pollution. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, 3rd District, who authored the motion calling for the ban, said the plastic bags too often end up as litter in the county’s streets and waterways, and referred to them as “urban tumbleweeds” for their propensity to be blown around by the wind.
“We have one of the great resources in the State of California, our coastline and our ocean. These bags end up in our storm drains, they end up in the ocean, and it puts our great natural resource and our economic resource in jeopardy,” Yaroslavsky said. “They pollute and they degrade the quality of life in every community in Los Angeles. They aren’t good for us; they aren’t good for the environment.”
The ban was hailed by environmental groups such as Heal the Bay, whose members participated in the rally Tuesday. Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, said the ban will be a significant step forward in reaching the goal of having a statewide ban on plastic shopping bags.
“The supervisors’ leadership today will spur other local communities to take meaningful action to break our addiction to single-use shopping bags,” Gold said. “The plastics industry knows the writing is on the wall.”
Plastic shopping bags have long been a problem, with less than five percent of them recycled each year in California, according to Gold. Approximately six billion plastic shopping bags are used each year in Los Angeles County.
The ban will go into effect in July at markets, pharmacies and retail stores in the unincorporated areas of the county, but Yaroslavsky said he is hopeful that by then the Los Angeles City Council and leaders in other large cities in Los Angeles County will have enacted bans.
Stores will still be able to offer plastic bags if they contain at least 40 percent recycled plastic. The ordinance also places a 10-cent surcharge on paper bags, with the goal of persuading consumers to switch to reusable bags.
Recent attempts to ban the bags were defeated. Most recently, AB 1998, the so-called “Bag Tax” which was authored by Assembly Member Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), failed to get enough votes in the State Senate in August. Yaroslavsky said that was one factor that prompted him to author the countywide motion. Yaroslavsky hopes the motion will serve as a model for similar bans in municipalities throughout the county.
“This will allow all eighty-eight cities in the county to approve their own ordinance, so we will have a seamless ordinance throughout Los Angeles County,” Yaroslavsky added.
The ban on plastic shopping bags was opposed by the American Chemistry Council, which contends that it will lead retailers to raise prices and cost workers in the plastic bag manufacturing industry their jobs.
“It’s extremely disappointing that the Board of Supervisors would take this approach, which threatens to derail existing recycling programs and fleeces consumers,” said Tim Shestek, senior director of state affairs for the American Chemistry Council. “We believe there are more effective ways of reducing bag litter and waste that do not result in raising grocery costs for families, put at risk hundreds manufacturing jobs in the Los Angeles area, or require more government bureaucracy.”
Shestek suggested that a better approach would have been to support improved plastic bag recycling programs.
“California voters overwhelmingly agreed that they’re tired of getting hit with fees that are little more than thinly veiled taxes,” Shestek said. “In the days ahead, we’ll have to look at all the options.”
However, representatives of several environmental groups hailed the ban on plastic shopping bags. Some said it will make a big difference in the number of bags that end up in the ocean.
“We advocate for the elimination of single-use plastic bags because of the impact that they have on the world’s oceans,” said Nancy Hastings, a spokesperson for the Surfrider Foundation. “These bags do not biodegrade, which means once they get into the ocean, they are there forever.”
Amy Blount Lay, a Mar Vista resident who has created a program to educate children called “Plastic: The Real Sea Monster”, said she hopes the ban will persuade manufactures to begin using more recycled plastics.
“We have really brilliant scientists who can develop products that biodegrade better, and the goal is to educate the public to make smarter choices,” Blount Lay said. “We need to cleanup the messes we have created and not just hand them off to the younger generations.”
Environmental groups also expressed concerns that some bags may have high levels of chemicals that end up being released into the ocean. In addition, other potential problems remain, even with reusable bags. On Monday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) warned that some reusable bags manufactured in China may contain dangerous amounts of lead. Schumer called for the Federal Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate the problem, and ban the bags if they are found to have high levels of lead. The move was prompted by a report released in September that found high levels of lead in reusable bags at some grocery chains on the East Coast.
Dave Heylan, a spokesperson for the California Grocer’s Association, said there have not been any reports of problems with reusable bags distributed by any of the major chains in the state, but the association is recommending that its members check with the manufacturers to ensure the bags do not contain excessive amounts of lead. The California Grocer’s Association represents 80 percent of the grocery companies in the state, including major chains such as Safeway, Vons, Ralphs, and Albertson’s, as well as smaller companies including Bristol Farms and Gelsons.
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