Bag Ban II: Pasadena? Culver City? L.A.? [updated]
June 30, 2011
“Less paper, no plastic.” Think of it as the new mantra for Los Angeles County’s checkout lines.
Starting July 1, stores in the county’s unincorporated area will help curb a longstanding environmental problem by charging a dime each for paper bags and halting the distribution of single-use plastic bags altogether. The goal? To wean consumers away from those disposable, ubiquitous—and polluting—grocery bags.
But the historic ban on single-use plastic bags, passed last year by the Board of Supervisors, had a secondary goal—to inspire similar measures in the county’s 88 incorporated municipalities.
The new county ordinance, which will take effect in two phases—the first for large stores, the second in January for smaller retail outlets—will cover an area that is home to more than a million consumers, but its first phase will only affect about 70 supermarkets and other big establishments, most of which are concentrated in northern L.A. County and the San Gabriel Valley.
So as shoppers in places like Athens and Altadena get ready to bring their own bags to market, how’s that domino effect progressing? And what about the county’s biggest concentration of shoppers, the City of Los Angeles?
“We think there’s been great momentum,” says Kirsten James, water quality director for the Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay, which advocated the bag ban. “Since the county moved forward, we saw the City of Calabasas adopt the same ordinance, which also goes into effect in July.
“We also saw the City of Santa Monica adopt a pretty similar ordinance that will go into effect in September. We also saw Long Beach adopt the same ordinance, with a couple of slight modifications. They start in August, so they’ll be on board soon as well.”
The City of Malibu passed the county’s first ban on single-use plastic bags in 2008. A Manhattan Beach ban the same year was challenged in court by a pro-plastic bag group because the city did not conduct a formal environmental impact report before determining that fewer plastic bags would be good for the environment.
Such reports, which document the effects a proposed law will have on the environment and community, can be costly and time consuming, but are required by the California Environmental Quality Act, the ban’s opponents noted. The Los Angeles County ordinance, which has not been challenged so far, not only included an EIR, but drafted it so that cities within the county could simply build on the county’s environmental analysis with individual addenda, as opposed to starting from scratch, which would be much more expensive. The Manhattan Beach appeal is now before the California Supreme Court, and a ruling is expected by mid-August.
“Meanwhile, other cities are pondering the idea,” James says, and at least two expect to see local ordinances before their city councils as early as July.
- West Hollywood’s City Council, for instance, voted in February to begin compiling EIR data for a draft plastic bag ordinance, and the city’s climate action plan indicated in April that the city is monitoring the Manhattan Beach litigation for guidance on how best to proceed. “The City Council has twice supported efforts to ban single-use plastic bags from use in the City of West Hollywood,” notes Councilmember Abbe Land, who co-authored both items. “We are continuing to move forward with our efforts to create an effective ordinance, working with our City Attorney and our Community Development Department to ensure we are compliant with EIR requirements.”
- In Pasadena, the city’s Environmental Advisory Commission has been gathering public comment on a proposed ban for nearly two months. Ursula Schmidt, sustainability affairs manager for the city, says the ordinance under consideration is modeled on the county’s and has received three letters of opposition and more than 200 letters of support. Though the local Chamber of Commerce expressed concern about local stores being placed at a competitive disadvantage if Pasadena businesses have to charge for paper bags and adjacent communities don’t impose such a ban on their stores, she says, the Chamber’s board voted not to take an official position, and several nearby cities, including Glendale and South Pasadena, have contacted her for information about Pasadena’s proposed measure. The commission is expected to vote as soon as July 19 on a recommendation, which would go to the City Council in September, she says.
- In Culver City, Vice Mayor D. Scott Malsin says public support for a ban has been building for some time now, and the city attorney has been working on a draft ordinance to bring to the City Council “within the next month.” It, too, is modeled on the county’s ban, and builds on the county’s EIR data. “We’ve really appreciated the county’s leadership on this,” says Malsin. “Had Culver City not been able to use the county’s EIR data, we probably would not have been able to move forward with it at this time.”
- Inglewood also is drafting a proposed plastic bag ban for consideration later this summer, based on the county ordinance, with an addendum to the EIR, city staffers confirm.
- The City of Los Angeles, meanwhile, is the big player on the landscape. One city report estimated that consumers in just the city use 2.3 billion single-use plastic bags annually. Karen Coca, division manager for citywide recycling with the city’s Bureau of Sanitation, says a staff analysis on a proposed ban is being finalized and a report detailing policy options is expected to go to the City Council some time in July.
In some respects, the city’s strategy has already been decided. The City Council agreed in 2008 to ban single-use plastic bags by 2010 unless the state addressed the issue. The California Legislature rejected a statewide ban last year amid a $2 million-plus industry lobbying campaign.
Coca says that, aside from the pending legal questions surrounding the Manhattan Beach case, the city’s main challenge appears to be enforcement. Los Angeles has some 7,500 retail outlets that would be impacted by an ordinance like the county’s, more than seven times the number of stores that will be affected in unincorporated Los Angeles County when the county ordinance is fully implemented in 2012.
Pat Proano, the county Department of Public Works’ assistant deputy director for the environmental programs division, says the county Department of Health and the Agricultural Commissioner will enforce the county ordinance, since they already conduct regular inspections of supermarkets and other retail stores.
However, he says, “there’s a cost associated with that,” and it’s unclear whether the county would have the resources to enforce bans for other municipalities. In any case, Proano adds, ”this is a milestone for L.A. County and we are ready for implementation of the plastic bag ban.”
Updated 7/14/11: The California Supreme Court on Thursday made it even easier for municipalities to join in Los Angeles County’s new plastic bag ban, ruling that they can clamp down on the proliferation of single-use plastic grocery bags without necessarily going through lengthy and expensive environmental impact reports.
The unanimous court decision, in a lawsuit brought by a pro-plastics organization after Manhattan Beach tried to ban plastic bags in 2008, had been closely watched by cities, including the City of Los Angeles, after an attempted statewide ban went down to legislative defeat amid heavy lobbying from the chemical industry last year.
Environmental groups rejoiced. “This basically opens the flood gates,” says Kirsten James, water quality director for Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay. “This is a hugely significant ruling and it opens the door for cities to move forward all over the state.”