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Plastic prohibition Gary Walker | Thu, Nov 18 2010 12:05 PM

County Board of Supervisors votes to ban distribution of plastic shopping bags

By Gary Walker

The county Board of Supervisors, ignoring warnings from the plastic industry, voted to enact a sweeping prohibition on the distribution of single-use plastic shopping bags at grocery stores, convenience stores and pharmacies on Tuesday, Nov. 16.

The ban, which will be in effect in the unincorporated areas of the county, was cheered by Culver City environmentalists who have been urging their city leaders to take action to prohibit the sale of plastic bags since the defeat of Assembly Bill 1998 in the California State Senate on Aug. 31.

“We’re very pleased with the supervisors vote,” Meghan Sahli-Wells, a Culver City community organizer, said after the meeting. “Now this is no longer any reason why our city officials cannot move forward with a local ban on plastic bags.”

The 3-1 vote also included the passage of an environmental impact report that will be in effect countywide that deals with the environmental concerns of outlawing plastic and the sale of paper bags. The resolution also requires stores in the unincorporated areas to provide paper bags at a charge of 10 cents.

Heal the Bay President Mark Gold commended the supervisors for taking a stand against plastic. “The supervisors’ leadership will spur other local communities to take meaningful action to break our addiction to single-use shopping bags,” Gold said in a statement. “The plastics industry knows the writing is on the wall.”

Culver City resident Hillary Gross Moglen, who also attended the board meeting, was pleased that Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents Culver City, was one of the three yes votes. “I commend the board for taking a leadership position and was particularly pleased to see my supervisor support the ban,” she told the News.

Opponents of reducing or eliminating plastic bags have turned to Proposition 26 to argue against ordinances like those passed by the supervisors. The proposition, which voters narrowly approved on Nov. 2, will require a two-thirds supermajority vote in the state Legislature for many fees and new taxes.

“The voters have clearly spoken in California that they are tired of getting hit with what amounts to consumer taxes thinly disguised as fees,” Tim Shestek, senior director of state affairs in California for the American Chemistry Council, stated before the supervisors voted. “Before attempting a vote, it is critical that the board carefully examines how Proposition 26 applies to the bag ordinance.”

Shestek’s organization was one of the most prolific contributors to state legislators who voted against AB 1998.

While cities like San Francisco have taken it upon themselves to enact their own bans and neighboring Santa Monica is considering prohibiting plastic bags, Culver City leaders have been silent on a local prohibition.

Gross Moglen is looking forward to her municipal legislators taking action now that the county ban will soon be in place.

“I believe [the ban] will have enormous environment impact, save taxpayers money and encourage other municipalities to follow suit,” said Gross Moglen, a member of the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters. “In that vein, I encourage Culver City to adopt a similar ban and look forward to speaking in favor of the ban at a city council meeting soon.”

The passage of the countywide EIR and the ban on plastic bags comes a week after the discovery of lead in reusable bags in Florida spurred a lawmaker to call federal inquiry into the potential dangers of the toxicity for consumers.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) is seeking an investigation into the contents of plastic bags purchased at five retail and grocery stores after a series by the Tampa Tribune that reportedly found lead in reusable bags at five Florida stores.

“Any situation where lead bags are coming into contact with the food being purchased by Americans needs to be immediately investigated and resolved,” Schumur wrote in a letter asking the Food and Drug Administration to conduct an immediate probe.

The U.S. Government recalled over 600 toys made with lead paint in China in 2007 and there have been other products that were recalled as well, such as Chinese–made pet food, pharmaceuticals and toothpaste. For Sahli-Wells, the discovery of lead in reusable bags in Florida stirred echoes of the abovementioned items, which she believes is the logical outgrowth of lax federal regulation policies.

“We obviously have a problem with regulations in our county and the attitude of less regulation has put us in this situation, much like it has with the collapse of the financial industry in 2008,” Sahli-Wells contends. “Less regulation has compromised health and human safety.”

Gross Moglen referenced the recall of Chinese toys earlier this year and says she also backs Schumur’s call for a federal probe.

“As we saw with lead levels in toys from China, clearly the safety and environmental standards of Chinese products is of concern and consumers should be aware of these concerns, so I do think the Federal Government should look into these matters and encourage stronger regulations in ongoing trade discussions,” she said.

But she thinks the Tampa Tribune’s findings should not divert attention away from what she and others feel is a much larger problem.

“I do not think the lead levels in reusable bags should distract from the bigger issue of moving away from single-use plastic bags. Typically purchases are already wrapped, so the likelihood that these reusable bags will harm products carried in those bags is very small,” she added.

Sahli-Wells concurs, “What I hope is that people aren’t going to use this as an excuse to not use reusable bags and not ban single-use bags,” she said. “Just because the [Florida] bags have lead, it doesn’t mean that some of the single-use bags don’t.”

Schumur indicated that he thought stopping the sale of plastic following the news out of Florida was a sound idea.

“Federal agencies need to put a ban in place for reusable bags that have lead in them,” the senator said in a statement.

State Sen. Curren Price (D-Culver City), who was urged by many Culver City residents to vote in favor of the state ban, voted against AB 1998. Several local residents expressed disappointment with the senator’s position.

“During this past legislative session, I was unable support Assembly Bill 1998, which would have eliminated single-use plastic bags in most grocery stores and require these stores to charge consumers at least a nickel for paper bags,” Price explained to the News the week after he cast his vote. “The reasons for my opposition had nothing to do with the intent of the legislation but rather its unintended consequences on small businesses in my district, as well as its potential impact on seniors and the working poor.”

Price could not be reached for comment on the county ban or the federal probe.

Gross Moglen feels the public should be aware of what she and other anti-plastic bag activists consider to be an overstatement of the reported risks associated with reusable bags by plastic manufacturers.

“There is an attempt by the plastic industry to exaggerate the health risks from these bags, so while I do think it is worth exploring, I would also suggest more analysis and unbiased research be conducted,” she cautioned.

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