Los Angeles City Council Bans Plastic Grocery Bags

The City Council approved the hotly debated measure on a 13-1 vote Wednesday

By Melissa Pamer
|  Wednesday, May 23, 2012  |  Updated 7:44 PM PDT
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Actress and Heal the Bay board member Julia Louis Dreyfus used humor to argue her opposition to plastic bags during a Los Angeles City Council meeting, where members voted 13-1 to phase out plastic shopping bags. Patrick Healy reports from Downtown LA for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on May 23, 2012.

plastic bags, city council, environment, reusable, recycle, grocery

Actress and Heal the Bay board member Julia Louis Dreyfus used humor to argue her opposition to plastic bags during a Los Angeles City Council meeting, where members voted 13-1 to phase out plastic shopping bags. Patrick Healy reports from Downtown LA for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on May 23, 2012.

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Los Angeles became the largest city in the nation to vote to ban single-use plastic grocery bags after a City Council action before a packed house Wednesday.

The council approved a compromise measure, introduced Tuesday after years of debate over the issue, that would phase in a ban on plastic grocery bags. The measure will eventually require retailers to charge 10 cents for paper bags, which an original measure would have also banned.

The policy, approved on a 13-1 vote, will still need to be crafted into law by the City Attorney's Office, and will be subject to an environmental review before it returns to the council for another vote. The council wants a final vote within four months.

Supporters, including Councilman Paul Koretz, who authored the original measure that would have also banned paper bags, celebrated the action, saying it would reduce plastic litter in city streets, waterways and the ocean. It affects about 7,500 grocery stores in the city.

"This day has been a long time in coming," Koretz said. "I believe today will be an historic tipping point toward eventual elimination of all plastic and paper bags throughout the world."

Councilman Bernard Parks was the only no vote. He said he had health concerns related to germs harbored in reusable bags.

The compromise version of the ban, which gives more time for implementation than an original proposal, was announced by Councilmen Jose Huizar and Eric Garcetti Tuesday.

Once in effect, it will:

  • allow a six-month phase-out of plastic bags for large retailers
  • a year-long phase-out of plastic bags at small stores, and
  • a 10-cent fee for paper bags at all stores one year after the law goes into effect. 

The policy was opposed by a coalition of plastic-bag makers who say jobs will be cut, but it was supported by a variety of environmental groups. The proposal resulted in intense lobbying at City Hall.

Cathy Browne, general manager at Huntington Park-based Crown Poly, a plastic bag manufacturer, told the council Wednesday that "average Angelenos" want to be able to choose plastic bags. Several of her employees spoke in opposition to the ban.

"The City Council does not need to mandate consumer behavior," Browne said.

On Wednesday morning, several council members were joined by celebrities at a City Hall rally in support of the bag ban. The event, depicted below, was organized by Santa Monica-based nonprofit Heal the Bay.

The group's coastal resources director, Sarah Sikich, said the ban is an important environmental step.

"The bags are only designed for single use, but they get out into the environment and event make their way to streams, creeks and the ocean, and they never truly degrade," Sikich said, adding that cleanup costs are borne by taxpayers.

Koretz reported to the council on Tuesday that he had received 12,983 emails in support of the ban, with 1,005 opposed. He said Los Angeles will become the nation's largest jurisdiction to ban plastic bags.

Similar bans have gone into effect in Long Beach, Calabasas, Santa Monica and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, as well as dozens of other cities across California.

The compromise plan approved Wednesday is similar to the county measure, which was passed in 2010 and resulted in an ongoing legal challenge.

Koretz said he expected Los Angeles' action to revive efforts in toward a statewide ban in Sacramento, where the state Senate in 2010 voted down a bag ban after intense lobbying from the plastics industry.

The City Council's Energy and Environment Committee approved Koretz's original policy on April 4. Originally, according to a report from the committee to the council (PDF), the ban as proposed would have gone into effect immediately for large retailers, with a six-month grace period for smaller stores.

Huizar said he hoped the extra six months in his compromise policy would be "used for education and outreach and a phase-out for large retailers to get rid of the stock they have on hand."

The original proposal would have also banned paper bags following a six-month period during which retailers could charge customers 10 cents per paper bag.

The alternate plan passed by the council implements a permanent 10-cent charge for paper bags without banning the paper sacks.

In an effort to ease low-income consumers into the change, the 10-cent paper-bag charge will be introduced one year after plastic bags are banned, Huizar told the council.

The alternate plan additionally calls for the Bureau of Sanitation to report back to the City Council after two years to discuss how the ban is going and whether to strengthen it.

A spokeswoman for grocers told the council Wednesday that the industry supported the 10-cent charge for paper bags, saying it would give consumers an affordable option.

Implementing the ban would cost the city about $418,000, a staff report estimated. The cost would be paid for in party by recycling and trash funds.

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