Plastic Bag Ban Blows Into Town

Humor columnist Joe Donatelli reports on Los Angeles’s plastic bag ban in grocery stores.

The people of Los Angeles love the environment, when we can see it through all the smog. Nowhere on earth will you find a better friend to the penguin, the spotted owl and the un-spayed dog. When tough environmental problems arise, we Los Angelenos drive in our cars to air conditioned buildings where we drink foreign coffee and demand solutions. It’s what makes us great.

Some cities let major issues like the environment happen to them. Not us. We’re doers. Look all around. It takes a certain sense of daring and perseverance and cocaine to read a script like “Pain and Gain” and say, “Let’s do this!”

That’s the essence of who we are.

On January 1, the city of Los Angeles’s plastic bag ban took effect. The ban makes it illegal for grocery stores to distribute plastic bags to customers. If you’re keeping track, the list of things it is now illegal to do in Los Angeles includes murder, assault and giving elderly people who purchase oranges a thin plastic bag to carry them home. Let this be a lesson to scofflaws everywhere. If we can’t nail you on the murder charges, we will get you when you successfully open up a large supermarket chain and give people polyethylene reusable bags at no cost.

Can you feel the net closing, LA gang leaders?

Shoppers in Los Angeles now face limited bagging options.

They can bring bags from home.

They can pay 10 cents for a paper bag.

They can carry their groceries in their arms.

Or they can—as one friend witnessed—put all of their groceries in a grocery cart and wheel the grocery cart home. I advise against this final option. It is, technically, stealing, and after a few weeks you end up with a messy pile of grocery carts next to your refrigerator.

I went to Ralph’s grocery store this week to investigate Los Angeles’s bag ban and to buy some pork cutlets.

As I pulled into a parking space, I looked in the entrance of the store and saw a woman scrambling to pick up all of her groceries, which I assumed (incorrectly) had slipped out of a bag. Clearly unwilling to pay 10 cents for a paper bag, she was carrying them by hand. She then dropped them again in the middle of the parking lot. I would describe the look on her face as frazzled. She drove away in a Prius.

Inside the store all of the plastic bags had been removed from the bagging area. Only empty bag racks and some paper bags remained, like you would imagine in a zombie movie where panicking looters preferred plastic over paper.

plastic-bag-ban

The checkout lines at Ralph’s always move quickly, so I didn’t mind getting in line behind a woman with a full cart. She unloaded her groceries with her phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear, never once breaking conversation. I noticed she did not bring any reusable bags with her. Cashiers and baggers no longer ask, “Paper or plastic?” Now they ask, “Do you want to buy paper bags for 10 cents a bag?” This caused the woman to pull the phone away from her ear for a moment.

“What?”

The cashier explained that plastic bags were no longer allowed, and that if she wanted bags, she’d have to buy paper bags for 10 cents a bag. The woman, clearly overjoyed at the prospect of a future with cleaner oceans and tidier streets, told the cashier, “Whatever.”

Paper it was.

“Someone came prepared,” the cashier said as I placed my six reusable shopping bags on the checkout belt.

“Unlike some people, I read the news,” I said while extending my arm outward and subtly pointing at the woman on the phone as she walked out of the store.

“Nobody knows about the law yet. When they find out, they think it’s store policy,” said the cashier, who was clearly not happy that the store was being dissed by customers for a city law.

“Are people buying paper bags?” I asked.

“Quite a few,” the cashier said.

“Do you want a free reusable bag?” the cashier asked.

“Please. We use them in our house, unlike some people,” I said, and the cashier knew who I was talking about because of all of the subtle pointing I had been doing.

From this week forward, there will be fewer plastic bags in Los Angeles.

It remains to be seen whether or not the bag ban will help the environment. Any time you disrupt the delicate ecosystem of bags and stores in a city, there are bound to be unintended consequences.

Los Angeles City Council members who voted for the ban say the bags often end up on city streets and in the ocean, where they pose a threat to fish and wildlife. But did LA City Council think this all the way through? Reusable bags must be washed (which requires burning fossil fuels) in water (which is in short supply) that contains soap chemicals (which of course contain chemicals). A non-biodegradable plastic bag buried in a landfill, meanwhile, emits no greenhouse gases, and they give the aliens who find earth 11 billion years from now something neat to look at. Paper bags in landfills, meanwhile, emit methane, which will certainly drive away aliens and their much-needed Andromedan tourist dollars.

And then there’s Los Angeles’s real environmental problem, the one city council and the mayor and the city fathers are too chicken to tackle: dog poop. In a city filled with environmentalists, too few people are concerned with how much poop is in their immediate environments. People outside of LA imagine coming here and being able to see movie stars all over our city, and their vision of Los Angeles is absolutely correct when you replace the words “movie stars” with “canine excrement.”

What will happen now that there are fewer bags?

We stand at the dawn of either a great civic cleansing or a great civic poopening.

The future is in our hands.

Joe Donatelli is the author of Full Griswold: Stories from a Honeymoon in Italy. In 2013 he covered The One Thing No One Tells You About Living in Los Angeles.

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Author: Joe Donatelli

Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles. He publishes The Humor Columnist.

  • Reel Life With Jane

    Wait, I thought the switch to plastic bags was going to save the trees. Now they’re forcing you guys to pay 10 cents to kill a tree? I don’t understand Los Angeles.

  • Thee switch to plastic bags is to reduce litter. The tree people are really getting hosed on this one.

  • The poop here is nothing compared to the poop in Dallas, as I discovered when I lived there ( http://vpostrel.com/articles/is-dallas-going-to-the-dogs ). But it surely will be worse when people don’t have plastic bags to pick it up with/in.

  • Good article. I’ve been single-bagging my grapes at the grocery store (only a slight exaggeration) to compensate for the lack of plastic bags since the ban. I’m probably not the only one.

  • Larry Hollister

    “But did LA City Council think this all the way through?”

    I’m sure that the people who advocated for the bag ban did. Did you bother to talk to them, or are you just flying by the seat of your pants on this one?