Free Bags May Get the Sack

Paper or plastic? It might not matter soon.

Feb. 3--Paper or plastic? It might not matter soon.

Supermarket shoppers could end up paying for selecting either bag if Los Angeles politicians follow a San Francisco proposal -- and the advice of some environmentalists -- to recoup the cost of cleaning up grocery-sack litter.

San Francisco officials are considering a fee of 17 cents per bag in a bid to encourage Bay Area shoppers to bring their own sacks.

Los Angeles city leaders also want to get rid of grocery-bag blight. Hoping to avoid drastic measures, Councilman Ed Reyes wants manufacturers of plastics and officials in grocery chains to partner with him on bag cleanups and recycling programs.

"San Francisco has the wherewithal to charge that much. San Francisco has a different income group," Reyes said. "Here in Los Angeles, I would rather work with the industry before we get into that."

Reyes' proposal to create a task force on plastic bags will likely go to the full City Council next week after being approved Wednesday by the council's Environmental Quality and Waste Management Committee. Reyes hopes the task force will hold its first meeting in March and produce recommendations 60 days later.

So far, plastics-industry representatives have said they will participate in Reyes' task force -- particularly in light of the proposed fee in San Francisco, which they oppose.

"The bag manufacturers in the last few years have gotten together and realize there is an issue," said Donna Dempsey, executive director of the Film and Bag Federation. "We're willing to work toward that goal."

All sides agree that plastic bags are a blight on the Los Angeles River, where hundreds of white sacks float on the shallow water, stick to rocks and dangle like Spanish moss from tree branches.

City officials were spurred to action by a new mandate to cut trash from the river and from Ballona Creek by 10 percent each year, starting this year, at an estimated cost of $120 million.

Plastics make up more than half of all the trash in the river, and plastic bags alone constitute slightly more than one-third of the litter.

Unlike paper or wood or other organic garbage, plastics don't biodegrade. They cause environmental damage by breaking into smaller pieces that are eaten by fish and wildlife. Plastic bags also clog the screens installed on storm drains that filter trash from runoff.

"Plastic is the single most important component of the litter. It's also the most environmentally damaging," said Kosta Kaporis, an engineer with the Bureau of Sanitation. "It's aesthetically the worst."

Los Angeles River ad hoc committee staffer Lupe Vela is in charge of task force preparation and hopes to bring industry representatives to the table first to see if they can develop voluntary programs.

Right now only about 5 percent of the plastic used in grocery bags is recycled. Some grocery stores have bins in which to deposit used bags, and some offer a discount -- 5 cents or less -- for shoppers who bring their own bags.

And bags can't be mixed with curbside recyclables. They stick to bottles and cans, and they clog sorting equipment. Yet there is a demand for the raw material by companies that use old sacks to make more bags or plastic building materials.

The task force will likely talk about ways to collect and recycle bags. Members are virtually certain to consider public-education campaigns to get people to stop littering, to bring their own reusable bags when they shop, and to participate in neighborhood cleanup programs.

But some question whether voluntary, public-private programs will deliver the kind of dramatic cut in plastic litter that is needed for the city of Los Angeles to meet trash regulations.

"I'm skeptical that the plastics industry is going to be capable of coming up with a solution that involves fewer numbers of plastic bags being sold," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, which has pushed San Francisco and Los Angeles authorities to consider fee-per-bag systems.

He points to the success in Ireland, where use of plastic bags dropped by 90 percent a year after the nation imposed a fee of 15 cents per bag.

Though Reyes champions the partnership with industry and the community now, he said he is open to tougher means to get bags out of the Los Angeles River.

"Maybe we'll come up with a fine or a tax for the plastic bags, and give the bag some value, so people will think twice before throwing it on the streets."

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