Charges Brought Against LA County After Ban Implemented

Over the last several months Los Angeles County rolled out a plan to ban plastic disposable bags in an effort to make the area free from plastic litter and to combat the negative environmental impact caused by plastic bags. The ban went into action in stages. The first stage went into law July 1, 2011 and banned the use of plastic bags in major retailers. Phase II extended the ban to smaller establishments on January, 1 2012. In addition to banning disposable plastic bags the measure also called for a 10-cent fee to be charged for each paper bag stores give to customers in the checkout line. The fee is not subject to sales tax and all fees collected are to be kept by the retailers. The intention of the fee was to discourage shoppers from simply using paper bags in place of plastic bags and to encourage people to bring reusable grocery bags when they do their shopping.

Ban Challenged

LA County's ban was challenged by a group that includes South Carolina based Hilex-Poly, who is an industry leader in the manufacture of plastic bags and film products. The lawsuit brought by the group argued that the ban violated Proposition 26, which outlaws a tax being disguised as a fee. The suit claims that the 10-cent fee charged to use paper bags is unconstitutional because the fee is really a tax. A second issue of the case was that there was no oversight into how stores used the revenue collected from the fees.

The goal of the suit was to get the ban overruled and get both plastic and paper bags back into consumer's hands. It is understandable that plastic bag manufacturers would take issue with such a ban since it threatens their livelihood. It is unfortunate that the group that brought the suit would try to tear the ban apart based on a misinterpretation of the law. It is also unfortunate that the County had to put their lawyers and officials on this issue and valuable court time was spent looking over the fine print of the ban when the judicial system could have been working on other, more pressing issues. Hilex-Poly and the other groups that brought the suit should possibly consider using their time and money researching how to create an eco-friendly solution instead of trying to derail progress.

Ruling Upholds Plastic Bag Ban

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge threw the suit out and upheld the law. Judge James Chalfant stated that Prop 26 was designed for revenue generating measures and since the County does not collect a single cent from the fee, Proposition 26 was not violated. The fee is simply a fee and it is not a tax incognito.  When the ban went into effect the County encouraged retailers to use the monies collected to promote plastic bag recycling efforts or the use of reusable shopping bags; however, this was not written into the law and there was no effort exerted or even planned to monitor where the money actually went. The idea of using the money collected by the fee to help solve the disposable bag problem or encourage reusable bags is fantastic. Since this money is raised by those who either have disposable bags that should be properly recycled and people who could benefit from reusable bags this notion helps create a solution from the problem. Another perk of this setup is that it does not draw on tax payer money.

This particular ordinance probably could have benefited from having a more defined process for how the money is spent and a method of confirming the spending allocation is adhered to. The ban has been in place at major retailers for about eight months and in that time there have been no issues or acts of impropriety regarding how the money is spent. Maybe that is just sheer luck, but a more defined set of rules would help to shore up the ordinance and ensure that there are no problems. This direction would also help create a degree of transparency so residents and opponents of the law could have sight into exactly what is happening. This added direction would also make it harder for those against the ban to find fault and try to bring the whole ban down on a technicality.

Model to Learn By

This ruling is most certainly a victory for Los Angeles County, but it is also a victory for every other municipality that is pondering a disposable bag ban. This incident serves as a model to other municipalities drafting their own bag bans. Other law makers will now know to consider laws such as Proposition 26 and make sure their ordinances can stand up to the argument levied by Helix-Poly and their cohorts.  Other lawmakers may also choose to include more specific language regarding how the fee money should be allocated so as to not invite any reproaches or legal actions. The criticism levied against bag bans is almost as useful as the bans themselves because while this critique may set an individual ban back it helps other cities, and counties, and lawmakers shore up their fine print and build stronger bans that can withstand attacks from plastic bag manufactures or other groups that threaten the progress of bag bans.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina explained in a press release issued shortly after the ruling, "At issue was the fundamental legality of Los Angeles County’s plastic bag ordinance, and I am very pleased Judge Chalfant decided in our favor.  The purpose of the ten-cent charge was to incentivize consumers to shop with more environmental awareness while preventing merchants from having to take on yet another financial burden – particularly during rough economic times.  We did not want to generate funds for the county – nor did we want to surreptitiously supplement the county’s coffers." The entire purpose of the fee is to get people to think about the big picture. The fee was set at 10 cents so as to not break the bank and cause a financial burden to shoppers. This amount is not exorbitant, but at the same time is not excessive. It is just enough to give consumers pause and make them think about how and on what they spend their hard earned cash. It is worth noting that LA County's ban does have exceptions. Residents participating in WIC (Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children) or SNAP (CalFresh/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are eligible to receive disposable paper bags without incurring the fee or reusable shopping bags at stores that honor these programs. LA's Public Works also gives away reusable bags at various community events to help alleviate the burden and expense of purchasing reusable bags.

Benefits of Reusable Shopping Bags

Los Angeles County's motives were primarily environmental. While the County could greatly benefit from collecting the fee, this issue is not about the money. It is about doing right by the environment. Plastic bag litter is a major eyesore and can cause serious harm to animals and their habitats. In an effort to protect the environment and keep the area clean the County has crews pick up trash – the problem is paying people to pick up litter is a drain of resources on several fronts.  When the Department of Public Works (DPW) sends employees to clean up roadside garbage that means there are other jobs that will not get done that day. LA County felt they were spending a lot of time and money picking up litter. Since plastic bags make up a large portion of the litter the logic is simple. Eliminate plastic bags and you will have less litter. Less litter means DPW crews will not need to spend as much time picking up litter. If the crews have more availability they can focus on other jobs. Banning plastic bags eliminates the problem at the source. Since the salaries of DPW employees is funded by tax money, letting the DPW focus their efforts on jobs that will better benefit the public and having the pubic shoulder efforts to reduce litter allows the tax payers and the County to get more bang for their buck.

Reusable bags are the perfect solution since they are sturdy and can accommodate more goods than a disposable bag. Reusable bags can last for several years of regular use, so they deliver faithful and dependable results.  Since reusable bags are often constructed in eco-friendly ways and are typically either made from recycled materials or renewable materials they just do not have the negative impact on the environment that disposable bags do. Many cities within the confines of Los Angeles already have bag bans, so by the County implementing their own ban it helps unify the various bans and makes life a little less hectic for the residents.

For more information on LA County's efforts to live life free of plastic back go to http://dpw.lacounty.gov/epd/aboutthebag/. To learn more about the court ruling head to http://montrose.patch.com/articles/countys-plastic-bag-ban-upheld-in-court-ruling and http://www.dailynews.com/news/ci_20258340/judge-upholds-la-countys-plastic-bag-ban.

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