The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to ban plastic carryout bags in the city's supermarkets and stores by July 2010 -- but only if the state fails to impose a 25-cent fee on every shopper who requests them.
Council members said they hope an impending ban would spur consumers to begin carrying canvas or other reusable bags, reducing the amount of plastic that washes into the city's storm drains and the ocean.
"This is a major moment for our city, to bite the bullet and go with something that is more ecologically sensitive than what we've ever done before," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents such coastal neighborhoods as Venice and Playa del Rey.
Tuesday's vote comes as the plastic bag industry, formally known as the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, is fighting efforts to regulate its products. The group filed a lawsuit last week challenging a Los Angeles County plan to reduce plastic bags about 30% by 2010.
Still, a lawyer for the coalition said that as long as the council's decision remains a policy and not a law, he sees no need for a legal fight.
"Why challenge it?" asked coalition attorney Stephen Joseph. "It's not an ordinance."
The council also voted to require city agencies to stop purchasing polystyrene food containers starting next year.
The plastic bag ban was hailed by environmental groups, including Heal the Bay and the Surfrider Foundation. Opponents warned the policy will have a devastating effect on the region's packaging companies.
"When we start banning things and closing factories, where are the blue-collar workers going to go?" asked Anatolio Riegos, a Highland Park resident who works for Pactiv, a packaging company in the city of Industry that has roughly 1,300 workers.
City officials estimate that Los Angeles consumers use 2.3 billion plastic bags each year. An estimated 5% of plastic bags are recycled statewide, according to the city's Bureau of Sanitation.
The ban was proposed by Councilman Ed Reyes, who called plastic bags "the graffiti of the L.A. River," which passes through his district.
Although the plan originally called for the bag ban to go into effect in 2012, council members Janice Hahn and Richard Alarcon persuaded their colleagues to embrace an earlier deadline.
Alarcon said the council would eventually pass a law regulating plastic bags. But for now, the council's vote is designed to persuade state lawmakers to impose a fee on them.
"If they don't do [a fee], then we do a ban," said Alarcon, who represents the northeast San Fernando Valley. "So yes, at some point there would be an ordinance."