Plastic Bags May Go the Way of Lead Paint, Lawn Darts

Plastic shopping bags, a staple of the U.S. retail experience for a half-century, may be going the way of lead paint and other banned products.

Los Angeles, the second most-populous U.S. city, yesterday became the largest American metropolis to curb use of the ubiquitous bags out of concern that they clog waterways, kill marine life and litter public places. An alderman in Chicago has introduced a similar measure, and a councilman in New York said he plans to follow suit.

The city of 3.9 million uses more than 2 billion plastic carryout bags a year, with most ending up as litter or in landfills, according to a Sanitation Bureau report. Officials in all three cities say their goal is a coast-to-coast ban on the bags, which some compare to the polystyrene foam sandwich containers that McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) phased out in the 1990s.

“It does send a message that the second- and third-largest cities in the country are going to act,” said Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno, author of that city’s proposal. “Local officials are dealing with this because they have to deal with the plastic bags on the sidewalks and in the waterways.”

The plastic-bag industry is fighting the bans. The American Progressive Bag Alliance, its lobbying arm, said ordinances like Los Angeles’s threaten a business that employs 30,800 people in 349 communities that has embraced recycling and other measures to cut pollution.

‘It’s Mythical’

“Plastic bags account for four-tenths of 1 percent of the solid-waste stream,” said Mark Daniels, chairman of the alliance and an executive at Hartsville, South Carolina-based manufacturer Hilex Poly Co. “For environmentalists to state that plastic bags are filling up our landfills is false; it’s mythical.”

Los Angeles stores with annual gross sales of $2 million, or more than 10,000 square feet of retail space, have until Jan. 1 to use up their stock of plastic bags; the deadline for smaller stores is July 1, 2014. Merchants may offer paper bags at a charge of 10 cents each, with proceeds going to the stores. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is scheduled to sign the legislation today.

The island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, has banned plastic shopping bags since the early 1990s, and Westport, Connecticut; San Francisco; Seattle; Brownsville, Texas; and Aspen, Colorado also have outlawed the sacks, according to the nonprofit PlasticBagLaws.org, which supports the efforts. Los Angeles County adopted an ordinance in 2010 to ban plastic bags in unincorporated areas, which have more than 1 million residents, and to require stores to charge 10 cents per paper bag.

Paper Bags

At a Ralphs grocery store, owned by Kroger Co. (KR), in the unincorporated seaside community of Marina del Rey, California, customers packed groceries in paper bags, reusable canvas and plastic sacks yesterday.

John Anagnous, a 25-year-old precious-metals seller who toted his groceries to his car in three paper bags, called the ban an example of government overreach.

“This is an easy buck for the grocery chains, to be honest with you,” Anagnous said “I understand being environmentally friendly, but I find plastic bags really convenient. I find it ridiculous that they want to tell us what we can do.”

Neil Huxley, a 38-year-old creative director, lugged two packages of toilet tissue -- made of recycled paper -- to his car without bags. He said he supports policies against one-time-use containers and that the ban has nudged him to bring reusable bags to the store.

Environmental Concern

“This is the 21st century,” he said. “We should be concerned about the environment.”

Chicago’s plan, which would take effect four months after adoption, may come up for a vote this summer, Moreno said. It may allow stores to charge for paper bags and would require them to stock reusable bags, he said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel “will work with members of City Council to reach a consensus on this issue,” spokesman Tom Alexander said by e-mail.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association is opposing Chicago’s measure, said Tanya Triche, the group’s vice president and general counsel. She said plastic bags cost retailers about 3 cents each, compared with about 9 cents for paper ones.

“It really raises the costs for merchants,” she said. “In this fragile economy -- and Chicago’s is more fragile than most -- we don’t think this is the time to be raising costs on businesses.”

In New York, Councilman Brad Lander of Brooklyn said he plans to introduce a measure this year to outlaw plastic bags, though he hasn’t worked out details.

Discourage Use

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed 5-cent tax on plastic bags, which was intended to discourage use, died in the City Council in 2008, spokesman Marc LaVorgna said by e-mail. The mayor is the majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

“When the mayor proposed the tax a few years ago, far fewer cities across the country had taken action to reduce plastic bag waste,” Lander said by telephone. “It’s time for New York City to catch up.”

Having large cities take action is critical to ridding the U.S. of plastic bags, said Matthew King, a spokesman for Heal the Bay, a nonprofit environmental group in Santa Monica that has pushed for bans in California.

“As businesspeople, the grocers want to have uniformity,” King said by telephone. “From a supply-chain perspective, it’s a hassle to have a patchwork of local laws. It’s our hope this will have a domino effect. That’s why L.A. is such a big deal for us.”

Lacking Science

Elected officials in different cities are trying to one-up one another with plastic-bag bans that aren’t based on science, said Cathy Browne, general manager of Crown Poly Inc., a bag-maker in Huntington Park, California, that employs 300 people.

“Plastic bags don’t kill mammals and birds,” she said. “That’s plastic fishing line. Nobody’s talking about banning plastic fishing line.”

A statewide plastic-bag ban for California fell short in the Senate in May. State Senator Alex Padilla, a Pacoima Democrat who previously served on the Los Angeles City Council, said in a statement that the city’s ban “gives tremendous momentum to our efforts in Sacramento.”

Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, a Democratic former state lawmaker who introduced the ordinance, said other local measures helped build support for bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines for rifles and indoor smoking that ultimately became state laws.

“Los Angeles is really a trendsetter,” Koretz said. “This could be a model for the rest of the country and beyond.”

To contact the reporter on this story: James Nash in Los Angeles at jnash24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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