L.A. Bans the Bags

Last week, Los Angeles became the largest city in the U.S. to ban disposable plastic bags from supermarket checkouts. Over the past several years, dozens of cities across the country have taken similar steps to encourage people to bring their own bags when they shop for groceries. Austin, Texas, for example, adopted a similar measure earlier this year, joining cities like San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, which also ban the bags.

The ban in L.A., approved by its city council in a 13 to 1 vote, will be slowly phased in over the next year and a half, giving shoppers time to get used to bringing their own reusable bags to the checkout. Alternatively, consumers will be able to purchase paper bags for 10 cents apiece. The city had considered banning paper bags along with the plastic, but opted to allow grocers to charge a small fee, designed to discourage their use, instead.

Disposable plastic bags aren’t just a nuisance because they often litter city streets. They’ve caused serious problems for ecosystems and for wildlife. Birds become entangled in them. Marine animals mistake the plastic for food. In fact, the United Nations Environment Program estimates that nearly 1 million sea birds die each year because of the bags.

But most importantly, the bags are a major contributor to the floating plastic patches that have polluted huge swaths of the world’s oceans. A 2009 U.N. report found that more than 80% of marine litter is plastic, mostly plastic bags and disposable plastic bottles.

According to L.A. city officials, the plastic bags represent roughly one-fifth of all the plastic discarded by L.A.—and nearly half of L.A.’s trash is plastic. The city consumes roughly 2.7 billion of the bags every year. Across California, only 5% of plastic bags are recycled. This is in part because recycling the bags can be far more expensive than making new ones.

Four dozen cities in California now have bans on plastic bags. This has led to several legal challenges to bans, often filed by plastic bag manufacturers who fear that jobs will be lost.

But these challenges have often proved moot, in part because activists have pressed for bans at many different levels of government. For example, Los Angeles County had previously enacted its own ban, but it has been held up by litigation from parties including a manufacturer of plastic bags. The county has a population of 10 million, four million of whom are residents of the city of L.A., where the new ban was adopted. And after Oakland, California, adopted a ban in 2007, it faced lawsuits that led it to abandon a city-wide ban. But a county-wide ban now prohibits the use of the bags in that city and the surrounding area.

A growing number of governments worldwide http://dirtroads.org/Bans-On-Plastic-Bags.html have put national bans into place. China, which adopted policies to limit bag use in 2008, cut use of the bags by two-thirds, eliminating two million tons of trash each year, according to its National Development and Reform Commission. And a small tax on plastic bags in Ireland led to a 94% reduction in plastic bag usage in that country.

Across the U.S. roughly 30 billion bags are used every year, consuming more than 10 million barrels of oil.