In what seems to be part of a steadily increasing effort in the U.S. to find green alternatives to unhealthy materials, Los Angeles, California will, this year, become the largest city to ban plastic bags at grocery stores.
On May 23, the City Council voted 13-1 for the approval of a policy that will ban single-use plastic bags before the end of the year, after an environmental impact report is finished and an ordinance is adopted. This development follows previous plastic bag bans in 48 Californian cities that encourage customers to use reusable bags - which won't litter and clog waterways and landfills.
One of the more recent examples occurred in Solana Beach, California, in April. "We recognize the harm that plastic bags do to our environments," City Councilwoman Lesa Heebner had remarked. "It harms wildlife, and we're small enough to institute something like this and see the difference that it makes."
LA residents will soon see the difference, as well: After the ordinance is adopted there, major stores will be required to phase out plastic bags over a six-month period, during which they will be expected to provide free paper bags. Smaller retail outlets, moreover, would be given a year's time to do away with plastic. Later, retailers will be allowed to charge 10 cents per paper bag if they choose. Residents receiving government assistance would be exempt from that fee, however.
Enrique Zaldivar, director of the city's Bureau of Sanitation, saw this as a major step forward, particularly for a city - population approximately 4 million - that uses about 2.7 billion single-use bags a year. "It's important to conserve the environment," Zaldivar stressed. "The reusable bag will do that."
The decision to move forward with the ban came after previous protests against the use of plastic bags, where environmental activists presented recyclable bags that held thousands of pro-ban petition signatures.
"Today, the Los Angeles City Council took a prudent step to protect the environment and bolster our economy," said Kirsten James, with environmental group Heal the Bay. James, who is the group's director of water quality, added, "The vote further emphasizes that the days are numbered for single-use bags in California."
Actress and Seinfeld alumni Julia Louis-Dreyfus - a board member of Heal the Bay - agreed that it was important for the city to terminate plastic bag usage. "What is hideously ugly, gigantically dangerous and outrageously expensive, and yet we still use it every single day in Los Angeles?" she asked. "No, it's not the 405 [freeway]. It's plastic bags. And unlike most other ugly, dangerous, and expensive things, we can actually get rid of these things overnight."
'Overnight' may be an exaggeration - note again the six-month allowance period for large retailers - but Los Angeles will, indeed, soon say "good riddance" to plastic bags.
Though some manufacturers and union employees voice a legitimate concern that phasing out plastic bags could cost some people jobs, many activists feel it needs to be done, and that, ultimately, it is in workers' best interest.
A large portion of ocean pollution, said Dreyfus, is plastic, and the pollution damages ocean life and, in turn, the jobs that depend on it.
Many now hope that LA will follow the example of San Francisco, which successfully moved to ban plastic bags at major stores in 2007. At such stores, "the public has gotten used to bringing their own bags," said David Assmann, a manager in San Francisco's environment department. "I think it's become a part of the culture here."
Photo: Margie La Bouff of Long Beach, Calif. loads groceries in reusable bags into her vehicle. Steve McCrank/AP & The Daily Breeze