LA Times Editorial: Ban Plastic Bags

The L.A. City Council should approve a ban on the carry-out bags to protect the environment.

The City Council on Wednesday will consider whether to ban stores in Los Angeles from offering single-use plastic carry-out bags. A ban would take some getting used to, but examples from other jurisdictions, including the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, show that it can be done and that shoppers and stores quickly adapt. A ban is the right move. The council should adopt it.

For a city with such a strong environmental ethic, Los Angeles is lagging on the plastic bag issue. It has been batting around the idea of a ban for three years as cities up and down the state acted to keep millions of the bags from being freely distributed, only to end up fouling waterways, beaches and the ocean.

Like the Styrofoam containers that once held fast-food hamburgers, plastic bags became popular because they seem cheap and convenient. But it turns out they seem cheap only because the true costs aren’t assessed directly to the seller or the buyer, but to all of us when we bear the burden of environmental degradation and cleanup. Some fast-food chains recognized that they, their customers and our society could take a step forward by reaching back and returning to the use of paper containers. Others caught up when laws required them to. No one is the worse off for it, and we’re all better off without the Styrofoam clogging streets and sewers and, eventually, forming part of a floating mid-ocean garbage patch.

Likewise, plastic bags are more costly to all of us than they appear and won’t be missed once they are gone. Stores do offer an alternative — asking modern life’s essential question, “Paper or plastic?” — but there are even better options. More shoppers now carry reusable totes, and for those who won’t, don’t or just forgot, paper bags would still be available in Los Angeles stores for a modest fee.

Isn’t a plastic shopping bag ban just as foolish as the new requirement, panned on this page last week, that stores put locking wheels or other devices on shopping carts to make sure that they don’t end up on city streets? Not at all. Losing carts is costly for stores, and they have a financial incentive to self-police and to round up carts that have gone astray. There is no inducement for stores to gather up all the disposable plastic bags they send home — nor do they have the ability to do so — so they freely distribute them at little cost to themselves but at a huge cost to the environment.

Law or regulation is required when the free market and habit lead us to do things that produce hidden and unacceptable costs. That’s the case with single-use plastic bags. It’s time for the state’s largest city to catch up and ban them.

Reprinted from The Los Angeles Times (5/22/2012)