L.A County’s Single-Use Plastic Problem

Anjali Singh
6 min readApr 2, 2021

L.A county has a large plastic waste problem, and the county itself creates about 28 million tons of solid waste each year. Less than 10% of all single-use plastics are recycled which means most non-degradable plastics will take up space in landfills for millions of years and damage L.A’s oceans and environment. Not only do taxpayers have to pay lots of money towards litter prevention and pollution, but plastic waste also contributes to climate change, as plastic production accounts for 20% of fossil fuel consumption. California lawmakers are trying to create legislation on plastic that would eventually phase out non-recyclable single use packaging by 2030(McGreevy). I aim to figure out how to decrease the amount of plastic waste and how to decrease the impact it has on the environment to lessen climate change.

Californians have already been barred from getting plastic straws in many restaurants until they are requested and many grocery stores are not providing single-use plastic bags. State lawmakers have been trying to take action for years in order to help L.A’s growing pollution problem and to prevent climate change. In 2019, legislation has been passed that requires plastic and single-use materials to be reusable, fully recyclable, or compostable by 2030(McGreevy). The L.A council shares the objective of reducing the amount of plastic going into landfills.

L.A county’s plastic waste problem has steadily increased over the years and has led to various types of pollution in the area. More specifically, I plan to hone in on the banning of single-use plastic bags in L.A in order to lessen its impacts on the environment. The article “Reducing Single-Use plastic shopping bags in the USA’’, addresses how local governments have been handling this issue. Over 100 billion single-use plastic bags have been used in a year in the U.S alone. You may be thinking, how bad can single use plastic bags be for the environment? A large problem with using plastic bags is that they often end up in landfills due to their low recyclability rate. “According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA, 2016), the 2014 EOL recovery rate for all (HDPE and LDPE combined) plastic bags, sacks, and wraps combined was 12.3%, which represents a decrease of 1.2% from 2013 (US EPA, 2015)”(Wagner). In response, plastic bags often remain a source of land-based litter and end up in stormwater management systems or become a part of marine debris. Single-use plastic bags are actually made from fossil fuels. Plastic shopping bags often become litter through escape during collection,transportation, recycling, or disposal. Its thin material and balloon-like features allow them to be dispersed by the wind and travel large distances, which primarily causes them to become land-litter and marine debris. When plastic litter enters surface waters or the marine environment, its effects become far more deadly. Plastic bags are the most common component of marine litter.

“ The input of plastic into the marine environment far exceeds its removal because of plastic’s buoyancy and longevity as plastic can potentially last hundreds to thousands of years (Cózar et al., 2014)”(Wagner). Although cleaning up this marine litter may seem easy, it’s not feasible at the moment, and it would be more efficient to focus on preventing this problem rather than letting it happen(Wagner).

Single-use plastic bags in general are very bad for the environment but more specifically, single-use plastic bags have become a significant problem in Los Angeles. Plastic bags harm marine and human life, at least 690 species are impacted by marine debris. Fish often ingest plastic debris which causes chemical additives in plastic and chemicals to accumulate on the surface of the plastic. You may be wondering why we can’t just recycle or reuse these plastic bags. The answer is simple, recycling single use plastic bags are costly and often ineffective. Recycling plastic bags brings us back economically, as it costs $4,000 to recycle one ton of plastic. Also, shopping bags often jam machinery and increase costs. Plastic bags also waste taxpayer dollars. “California state and local government spends roughly $428 million annually to protect the Pacific Ocean and state waterways from litter. Between 8 and 25 percent of that cost is attributable to plastic bag waste”(Why). In the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day. “The City of Los Angeles found that plastic bags made up 25% of litter in storm drains”(Why).

Plans to phase out single-use plastic bags have been attempted. Local governments use a variety of measures to reduce single-use shopping bags and give a baseline as to what regulations are put into place. For example, many states, California included, use a fee-based ordinance that charges retailers money if they use plastic bags, which encourages people to bring their own reusable bags(Wagner). Although this is a step in the right direction, I don’t believe that the regulations are enough to make a change. In the article titled “Grocery bags and takeout containers aren’t enough. It’s time to phase out all single-use plastic”, it addresses how more regulations are needed in order to reduce the effects that plastic bags have on the environment. “Denying free plastic bags at checkout or providing plastic straws only on request sends consumers an important message that there’s a bigger cost to these everyday items than they may have considered”(Grocery). The real solution is to work towards phasing out all single-use plastics. Although I believe that the regulations in place are a step in the right direction, I agree with this article and think it’s important to phase out all single-use plastics instead of just placing fees on the bags themselves.

Although phasing out all single-use plastic bags would help the environment, it comes with challenges from both the business and economic aspect. One problem with phasing out plastic bags is that grocery stores would have to resort to relying on customers bringing or buying reusable bags. This could cause more problems, as customers could easily forget having to bring their own bags or prefer using the one time plastic bags instead. An easy solution to this problem would be selling cheap reusable bags at every grocery store so that customers can easily purchase reusable bags to keep their groceries in on the spot. From a consumer standpoint, it may be unappealing to have to pay for reusable bags but if they are made affordable and in bulk, it will be easier to make them cheap. “Taylor and Villas-Boas (2016) found that with a plastic only bag ban, some consumption shifts to reusable and paper bags. They found a significant increase in paper bags from about 5% prior to a ban to 46.5% after the ban. However, in stores that sell inexpensive reusable bags (i.e., $0.15), consumption of paper bags increased to only 10% (Taylor and Villas-Boas, 2016)”(Wagner). If reusable bags are made inexpensive, customers will be drawn to using these bags which follows the plastic bag ban plan and lessen the harmful effects that single use plastics have on the environment. From a business owner standpoint, it may be more expensive to sell these reusable bags or it may make customers unhappy if all plastic bags are removed due to the inconvenience. Consumers often like keeping plastic bags at home to reuse them or use them for other purposes.Businesses want to keep their customers happy and may find it hard to follow through with something that may make their customers unhappy. It may be hard to get all grocery stores and companies to stop using plastic bags, as some grocery stores may want to continue with their old habits and continue to keep their customers happy. Although phasing out all single-use plastics may be difficult, its challenges do not outweigh eliminating the harmful effects that single-use plastics have on the environment. It is essential to work towards phasing out all single-use plastic bags in order to decrease pollution, marine and landfill debris, taxpayer dollars, and overall lessen climate change.