L.A.’s plastic bag ban: 6 months after

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These pellets are made at Command Packaging’s Salinas facility. The plastic pellets are shipped to Vernon to be made into reusable plastic bags.

Today, the second phase of Los Angeles’ plastic bag ban went into effect. That means smaller grocery stores can no longer hand out plastic bags, and have to charge 10 cents for paper bags. The law went into effect for large grocery stores in January, making LA the newest of over a hundred cities and counties in California outlawing single-use plastic. State lawmakers are deciding whether to enact Senate Bill 270, which would ban the bags statewide.

This is one of the machines that Command Packaging uses to clean and process used plastic into pellets that, in turn, make reusable Smarter Bags
This is one of the machines that Command Packaging uses to clean and process used plastic into pellets that, in turn, make reusable Smarter Bags

In Vernon, just south of downtown LA, Command Packaging manufactures bags from recycled plastic. To meet the requirements of bag ordinances in LA County, the company’s CEO Pete Grande took a cue from manufacturers in Europe and decided to change where he gets his raw material.

These pellets are made at Command Packaging’s Salinas facility. The plastic pellets are shipped to Vernon to be made into reusable plastic bags.

Grande’s company built a shiny new facility in Salinas that captures plastic used by industrial farms. “Normally that plastic would go to a landfill,” he said. “What we do is collect it and [the facility] washes it and then recycles it and makes a pellet and we ship it down to LA to make a reusable bag from it.”

Grande calls his reusable plastic bags Smarter Bags because they can be recycled again and again. They look like ordinary plastic bags but are made with thicker material and feel heavier – but most importantly, they can be sold in LA as reusable bags.

How? Grande says if his Smarter Bags are cleaned and disposed of correctly, they can be reintroduced to his facility to make more bags.

So, I decided to follow the Smarter Bag to see where it would go next and if it would end up back at his plant.

At an LA supermarket, I found a Smarter Bag sold for ten cents – a requirement in the ban to get people to bring bags with them when they shop.

I was curious, where does that ten cents go? In LA, stores get to keep it to cover costs for purchasing paper bags – which, by some accounts, really adds up.

According to legislative analysis, Californians use around 14 billion plastic bags a year. Charging a dime for the bag could bring in a hefty $1.4 billion to grocers statewide – a new revenue stream for store owners.

Dean Kubani, Santa Monica’s sustainability officer, said his city’s bag ban has been in place for over three years, and studies show it’s working.

“For the most part,” Kubani said, “bag use has gone way down for any kind of disposable bags.” He said it’s still challenging to get people to remember to use their own bags and that the use of paper bags are creeping back up.

How does Kubani know this? His city keeps track of how many paper bags each store sells. But that data doesn’t report how many Smarter Bags are sold because Santa Monica, and LA, don’t track the sale of reusable plastic bags.

So, I decided to do my own research ask the customers themselves. One customer, who decided to remain anonymous, said he actually saves his in a container at home. His family will reuse them until they fall apart, then they toss them in the blue bin and buy more.

Moving from supermarket to supermarket across LA, I saw Angelenos toting their own bags and also paying for paper. Others said they’d throw their Smarter Bag in the trash once it got too dirty.

Still not satisfied, I visited a recycling facility in Burbank where Kreigh Hampel leads a team of people sorting through blue-bin waste using a system of conveyor belts, compactors, and a giant bulldozer.

200 tons of potentially recyclable waste sits waiting to be processed at Burbank City's recycling facility.
200 tons of potentially recyclable waste sits waiting to be processed at Burbank City’s recycling facility.

Hampel says they process seventeen tons of recycled waste every hour and workers spend several of those hours hand picking hundreds of plastic bags out of the machinery so they don’t clog up the works, which requires costly repairs.

“The bottom line is that it’s very expensive to pull those [bags] out because you have more labor, more time, and more hassle to get these things out of the line,” Hampel said.

Sure enough, as Kreigh showed me through the facility, the team shut down the conveyor belt to perform a tedious harvesting of the bags. Among those plucked out was a Smarter Bag.

Gnarled and dirty, it was bundled with other mixed plastic to be sold in the open market. Hampel said most of it goes to China and other Southeast Asian countries.

I left Kreigh Hampel with a grimy notion: tossing my plastic bags in the blue bin doesn’t mean they return to a place like Command Packaging, where they will become new bags.

The bag ordinances in LA and Santa Monica don’t do that job either.

California’s proposed ordinance to ban plastic bags failed by three votes in the Senate last year. As it moves through the Legislature again, it may go on to become law or get discarded into the legislative blue bin.

In either case, I’m still left wondering which is smarter – the bag or the bill that bans it?