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L.A.'s Ban on Plastic Bags Ought to Be Sacked

May 31, 2012

When one thinks of ecological issues that Los Angeles faces, a few come to mind as being particularly serious, threatening the quality of life in the city. So in their wisdom, the Los Angeles City Council, while coughing from auto exhaust, recently decided to ban plastic and paper grocery bags from the City of Angels. Was the city in danger of being overrun by discarded grocery bags?

According to L.A. resident and filmmaker Jay Beeber, plastic grocery bags "and other merchandise bags" make up only about 0.3 percent of the waste stream in California. Beeber cites studies showing that "on average, plastic retail bags make up about 1 percent to 2 percent of all litter" across the country.

Okay, one can argue that with these statistics, the pro-baggers have a dog in this fight, but then again, so do groups citing statistics in efforts to get plastic bags banned. Los Angeles County claims that as much as 25 percent of the city's litter stream is plastic food-takeout bags.

But wait, the Save The Plastic Bag Coalition compared that claim to "litter audits" by other cities and states:

The San Francisco Department of the Environment litter audit conducted before plastic bags were banned in that city showed that plastic retail bags were 0.6 percent of all litter. The Florida figure is 0.72 percent. The Toronto figure is 0.13 percent.

Either Los Angeles has the same outsize percentage of the nation's plastic bags as it does of the nation's screenwriter wannabes or someone's blowing a bit of smoke in our general direction.

Of course, we always find all sorts of grossly exaggerated statistics and claims in such debates, especially when legislation is in the cards. Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, a Democrat from Van Nuys, Calif., who back in 2008 sponsored a bill to ban plastic bags, told ABC News that "the state spends $300 million cleaning up bags -- getting them off the beaches and out of the storm drains."


In fact, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition points out, Levine also claimed that the state spends $303.2 million on all litter cleanup from beaches and state highways, not just plastic bags.

So take any numbers and figures being bruited about with more than a grain of salt.

Still, it's either a quantifiable problem or it's not. And if it's quantifiable, is it as bad as it's being purported by the Plastic Bag Prohibitionists of Los Angeles? Let's set aside the claims about how much it costs to clean up. What other numbers are being trotted out in support of banning the useful plastic bag?

That "what else" is usually the claim that since plastic bags are made from oil, banning them will reduce our dependence on foreign oil or some such argument made by people who invariably oppose drilling for our own oil here in America to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

"Approximately 12 million barrels of oil go into the U.S. supply of plastic bags," writes a promotional brochure on

According to plastic bag maker Elkay Plastics, based in Commerce, Calif., which presumably knows about its own business, the plastic resin used in manufacturing our bags "is made from a by-product of natural gas, not oil."

Oh, but plastic bags are such a problem pollution-wise, you might retort. They're all over beaches, and they just look so disgusting.

It would take a fairly acute eye to spot a problem with plastic bags befouling Southern California's beaches. Again, according to those "in the know," the San Diego Coastkeeper and the San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation -- which conduct twice-monthly beach cleanups throughout the county and have successfully completed more than 170 beach cleanups -- plastic bags account for 2 percent of the litter cleaned off beaches.

The most commonly encountered trash on the beaches, according to the people out there doing the collecting, are cigarettes and cigarette butts, by far, accounting for 38 percent of all refuse. If one wants to prettify Southern California's beaches, one should immediately ban smoking on sand.

After that, ban plastic bottle caps; plastic food wrappers; plastic lids, cups and straws; Styrofoam cups and paper products, too, since more of those items are collected than plastic bags. Oh, and ban "Other," too, while you're at it, since beach cleaners collect seven times the amount of "Other" items than plastic bags.


Californians themselves aren't too crazy about the idea of banning plastic bags. In 2010 the issue came up in the state legislature, when California lawmakers rejected a bill that would have made the state the first in the nation to ban all plastic shopping bags. Opponents of the bill argued that the ban went too far to regulate personal choice.

San Francisco's experience with banning plastic bags offers a hint as to why the measure might be quietly supported by grocery store chains. After instituting the first-ever ban on plastic bags, in 2007, the city's Board of Supervisors this past February approved a measure allowing stores to charge 10 cents per any type of bag, such as paper, they give to customers at the checkout counter. The stores would keep the money.

Of course, paying an extra dime at checkout is far more convenient than bringing your own reusable bags to the store -- a fact grocery chains know well. The stores stand to profit handsomely from charging you 10 cents for what they used to give out for free.

So what's so bad about reusable bags? After all, isn't being nickel-and-dimed into using them better in the end?

Hardly. As Beeber the filmmaker points out, it's not like reusable bags, usually made of canvas, have zero environmental impact themselves. Cotton needs to be grown, harvested and turned over to manufacturing plants to make them, too. And since most of the ones that are being used in the United States are made in China, they need to be transported, usually via energy-inefficient and polluting cargo ships.

And they're breeding grounds for bacteria and diseases. Think about it: You put your food and other purchased items in these bags time and time again. Of course, that will leave some residue. In fact, the University of Arizona recently conducted a study, collecting reusable bags at random from consumers as they entered grocery stores in California and Arizona. It writes:

Reusable bags are seldom, if ever, washed and often used for multiple purposes. Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half. Escherichia coli were identified in 8 percent of the bags, as well as a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens.

And then there's the issue of carrying meat in canvas bags:

When meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours, the number of bacteria increased [tenfold], indicating the potential for bacterial growth in the bags.

The study's conclusion is that reusable bags, "if not properly washed on a regular basis, can play a role in the cross-contamination of foods." So naturally city health officials are hectoring people to wash their reusable bags after every use. Imagine everybody in Southern California and Arizona using reusable bags and washing them every time they came home from the grocery store -- stop laughing, we're imagining here. Imagine the amount of water resources needed for this -- and it's not like Southern California and Arizona are known for plentiful water reserves. Imagine the millions of gallons of precious water used; the energy needed to power all those washing machines alone should give environmentalists pause.

But they won't. Because the basic fallacy of the plastic bag ban lies in the same heart of most misguided environmental causes: The inability or unwillingness to recognize that just because you ban one bad thing, whatever the alternative is has to be better.

Traditional energy is bad, so they mandate that power has to come from windmills, except for the fact that wind power is so unreliable, you need traditional power plants to back them up. So now, in addition to still needing the traditional power plants they wanted banned, you have ugly windmills killing birds. Problem solved?

Don't like cars running on gas? Mandate electric cars. But where does the electricity that those cars need come from, given that a significant percentage of American energy is generated via coal? You'd trade an oil-powered car for a coal-powered one?

Sometimes, simple answers aren't the answer.