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Sack the bags

A City Council proposal to ban plastic shopping bags makes environmental and political sense.

July 22, 2008

Those flimsy plastic shopping bags seem to end up in our waterways, storm drains, wilderness areas and even the desert in far greater numbers than in the supermarket recycling bins where they belong. Yet the objections of grocers and other retailers that rely on them have paralyzed public officials who might otherwise act to rid the environment of these petroleum-based pests. We hope the members of the Los Angeles City Council, which is poised to vote today on a ban, don't join them. A ban isn't the ideal way to address the problem, but it might be the council's only choice.

The example of Ireland shows that a fee on single-use plastic bags is a remarkably fair and effective method for bringing about environmental transformation. A 25-cent fee has turned the Irish into a nation of reusable-tote carriers. But you don't need to go that far in either geography or expense. In March 2007, IKEA began charging 5 cents a bag. A year later, use of plastic bags at its stores is down 92%.

Strange to say, California has been moving in the other direction. A 2006 bill prohibited municipalities from imposing fees on plastic shopping bags. A new bill, AB 2058 by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), would repeal that prohibition.

Enter the ordinance before the council today. It would ban all plastic carry-out bags at supermarkets and other retail stores -- but not until 2012, and then only if no fee is in place, which depends on AB 2058 or similar legislation passing. The L.A. ordinance deserves approval. If the Legislature can't manage to free up municipalities so that they can require the fees, it's time for cities and counties to counteract with what authority remains to them.

L.A.'s proposed ban not only promises to drastically reduce an environmental atrocity, it pushes the Legislature to do the same by threatening more draconian city action if the state fails to come through. True, a ban would cost stores more in the form of paper or biodegradable plastic bags, but it's a relatively trivial sum, a few cents a bag. And retailers could choose how to cope with the cost. As some already do, they could offer a rebate or other incentives to customers who bring their own bags. They could wrap the cost into the price of their products. Or, best of all, they could follow the example of IKEA, giving customers the choice of whether to pay a small price for a bag or save a few pennies by bringing their own. After all, nothing in existing state law bars retailers from doing the smart thing.

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