Santa Monica's ban on plastic grocery handle bags, officially known as the Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance, goes into effect this Thursday, September 1. If you don't live in Santa Monica, you may not care. But we predict -- or at least sure hope -- the bag ban will eventually have the same effect as the seat-belt law. As in, remember when New York state passed first mandatory buckle-up law in 1984? If you're too young to remember how much folks complained about being told it's a crime not to buckle up, the coroner likely considers that a small nationwide habit-changing victory.
As for the plastic bags, the ban applies only to those shopping bags with two handles that you find in grocery store checkout lines and yes, at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. As with a similar law that went into effect in other areas of L.A. earlier this summer, those handle-free bags that you "unroll" in the produce aisle are still considered kosher and will remain gratis. All other checkout bags, paper included, will now be available only for a fee.
"There is nothing good, absolutely nothing, about those handle bags," says Laura Avery, manager of the Santa Monica Farmers Market. "People say they re-use them but they don't. They are single-use bags. Period." As for why other plastic bags are not being banned,"It's the ones with handles doing most of the damage, littering streets... in the oceans," she continues.
Avery says the city has long been on the anti-handle bag bandwagon, but it took several years for the law to pass. "We've been trying to do this for a long time," she says. "But the plastic bag industry sued the city, of course, to try to stop us."
Beginning at the Saturday farmers markets, the city will be offering up a handful of re-usable cloth bags with a plastic bag ban logo, but Avery warns they will be gone within minutes. What the city really needs, she says, is for folks to offer up their old cloth bags for the community to disperse during the markets for those who forget their bags (non-handle plastic bags will also be available from most vendors). "We all have too many cloth bags by now, and [the city] needs them," she says, nodding to a large bin at the ready to take your used cloth bags. "But no one is putting anything in there."
Grocery stores may offer paper bags as an alternative, but they must be made with 40% post-consumer recycled material. Customers must be charged $0.10 per bag.
As straightforward as the law sounds, it's already causing consumer confusion at various grocers. A Santa Monica Ralph's we visited was focusing on the financial side of the law, warning customers at checkout that they will soon be charged $0.10 for bags due to a new city law. There was no attempt to explain the environmental reasons behind the law, and many customers were noticeably angry at the idea of paying what appeared to be a new city tax. But all revenue from the sale of paper bags goes back to the retail store, not in the city's pocket.
At a Santa Monica Whole Foods, the bag ban chat among customers was more recycling oriented but also misinformed. A check-out employee told us that Whole Foods had long since given up handle bags (they have), and their produce bags did not apply to the ban because they are compostable (they don't apply simply because they are not handle bags). As for whether their produce bags are compostable, a follow-up on our end confirmed they are not. "We do provide plastic in Produce as that is still the preference of many customers, especially for items that are wet," says Whole Foods spokesperson Marci Frumkin. "These bags are 100% recyclable but not compostable."
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The check-out employee's recycling versus composting confusion is a common one that has been lingering since Santa Monica passed an ordinance several years ago requiring all take-out food containers be compostable. Unfortunately, the law went into effect before the city had the funds to provide compost bins for all residents (Read: Those not living in high-dollar homes). Many compostable containers are not recyclable and do not break down in a trash bin. In those cases, recycling is arguably the better alternative if compost bins are not widely available. [Three years after that law went into effect, this writer has yet to see any compost bins appear in her apartment-heavy neighborhood.]
As the bags are being eliminated outright, the plastic handle bags ban transition will likely be a much smoother one than composting has been. But Avery is still readying her staff for a lively September at the farmers markets. "It's been a crazy year already with our 30th anniversary, and it's about to get busier."
You can donate extra cloth handle bags at any Santa Monica Farmers Market. Look for the donation bins at the information booth.