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California Endangered Species: Plastic Bags


LOS ANGELES » On a recent drizzly day, Esha Moya found herself standing outside a grocery store in South Los Angeles, her half-dozen paper bags falling apart in the rain, wishing she had a few small items that had been free and plentiful her entire life but are now banned in this city: plastic shopping bags.

"I hate this," said Moya, a telemarketer and a mother of two. She has begun stockpiling plastic bags at home because paper bags "are always breaking," she said. "It’s stupid, and it makes it really hard for us."

A companion to shoppers for a half-century, the plastic bag is now under siege in California, where a growing number of policymakers have come to regard it as a symbol of environmental wastefulness.

Since 2007, plastic shopping bags have been banned in nearly 100 municipalities in the state, including Los Angeles, which at the start of this year became the largest city in the country to enforce such a ban. Paper bags, which are biodegradable and easier to recycle, are often available for a small fee.

And now, lawmakers in Sacramento are trying to make California the first state to approve a blanket ban on this most ubiquitous of consumer products.

"It has become increasingly clear to the public the environmental damage that single-use plastic bags have reaped," said Alex Padilla, a state senator who is sponsoring legislation for a statewide ban. "This is the beginning of the phaseout of single-use plastic bags — period."

Padilla’s measure would ban traditional single-use plastic bags at supermarkets, liquor stores and other locations where they have long been standbys. Paper bags and more robust, reusable plastic bags will be available for a 10-cent fee, with the goal of forcing shoppers to remember their canvas bags.

The case against plastic shopping bags is simple and, with more than 150 communities across the country embracing some kind of anti-bag laws, increasingly familiar. Plastic bags are used once or twice but can last up to a millennium.

Only a small fraction of the bags are recycled, in large part because they jam sorting machines at recycling plants and so must be separated from other plastics. Many bags end up snagged on trees, stuck in storm drains or sitting in landfills.

In just a few years, local bans on plastic bags have spread from San Francisco to Honolulu to the North Shore of Massachusetts. Washington, D.C., has imposed a 5-cent fee, and New York City has several times considered charging for bags, most recently last year, when the proposal died at the end of the city’s legislative session. The new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has expressed support for a ban on plastic bags.

Many consumers bristle at having to pay for a necessity that has always been free. "We’re already struggling," Moya said as she waited in the rain for a taxi with her disintegrating paper bags, purchased for 10 cents each. "Groceries cost enough money. Then I have to pay for bags?"

The plastics industry has worked furiously to tap into that frustration. So far, the industry — behind millions of dollars spent lobbying lawmakers — has managed to beat back efforts to pass statewide bans in California and a handful of other states.

Hilex Poly, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of plastic bags, single-handedly spent more than $1 million lobbying against a bill to ban plastic bags in California in 2010. That bill failed, as did another attempt in 2013. Hilex Poly, based in Hartsville, S.C., has made political donations to every Democrat in the California Senate who joined Republicans in voting against last year’s bill.

Mark Daniels, a vice president at Hilex Poly, said a ban would cost the state up to 2,000 jobs.

"This is going to cost Californians millions and millions of dollars," Daniels said of the current legislation. "They’re going to have to purchase millions of supposedly reusable bags from China."

But support has been steadily growing in the California Legislature. The endorsed a statewide ban on Thursday, and several senators who voted against the ban last year have come out in support of it this time.

Some environmentalists say they now believe they have the momentum to push bans across the country, starting with California.

"It’s very effective, and it’s very cost-effective," said Kerrie Romanow, director of environmental services for San Jose, Calif.

Since San Jose’s ban took effect in 2012, plastic-bag litter in storm drains, which can contribute to flooding, has fallen by 89 percent. In unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County, large retail stores reported a drop in the use of paper bags since a similar ban, coupled with a 10-cent fee for paper bags, took effect.

"People are adapting very quickly," Romanow said. "The days of a single candy bar getting its own plastic bag are over."

Abbi Waxman, a television writer in Los Angeles, said she had tried for years to wean herself off plastic bags. But despite sidelong looks from grocery store cashiers, she seldom remembered to bring her cloth bags.

"Once they started charging me, that was the tipping point when I could actually remember to bring my bags," said Waxman, 43, standing with a half-dozen reusable bags on a recent shopping trip.

"I have, I’m not kidding, about 40 reusable bags at home, because I feel so guilty when I come without them that I buy more each time," she said.

Daniels, the Hilex Poly vice president, said the plastic bag had been unfairly scapegoated for a variety of environmental ills. Thin plastic bags are reused, he said: They are repurposed as lunch bags and trash can liners, and they come in handy for pet cleanup.

But other plastics manufacturers have begun to embrace the changes in their industry.

"The industry will be destroyed if it’s unwilling to evolve and change," said Pete Grande, president of Command Packaging in Vernon, Calif., which is starting to produce more heavy-duty, reusable bags from recycled agricultural plastic.

Last year, Grande opposed the bill to ban single-use plastic bags in California. So did the two Democrats who represent Vernon in the state Senate.

This year, they all support the bill, which would allow stores to offer more durable plastic bags for a fee alongside paper ones at the checkout line.

"We lived for thousands of years without single-use plastic bags," said Padilla, the bill’s sponsor. "I think we will be just fine without them."

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