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'Paper or plastic?' may become obsolete if LA bans grocery bags

Ah, the little plastic grocery bag, we hardly got to know you.

Although it seems as if the single-use grocery bag, as it's formally known, has been around forever, it wasn't until 1977 that it was introduced to U.S. supermarkets, a move that prompted perhaps the most asked question of the following decade: "Paper or plastic?"

As the years went by and plastic won, people began to find myriad other makeshift uses for the little bags with the briefcase-like handles. You could line small trash cans with them, use one to scoop up dog doo and another to carry wet towels home from the beach. You could even use them to take pictures in the rain and not destroy your camera.

The discarded bags, though, had a nasty habit of washing up on beaches by the thousands, clogging storm drains and getting tangled in all sorts of stuff. That raised the ire of environmentalists, who have been on a ban-the-bag quest for years.

Now, with the city of Los Angeles taking the first step toward joining nearly four dozen other California municipalities in outlawing them, the humble little polyethylene bag may be headed for the trash heap of history.

San Francisco already bans the bag. So do San Jose, Long Beach, Berkeley and Malibu.

But LA, with nearly 4 million residents, goes through an estimated 2.7 billion plastic grocery bags a year, according to city officials, and environmentalists believe a ban here will have a huge impact and could even influence the rest of the country to follow suit.

"This is a gateway for sustainability," said Leslie Tamminen of the Clean Seas Coalition, which pushed for the LA ban. "This is meant to change consumer behavior and expand consumer consciousness."

The biggest thing now is remembering to bring those reusable cloth bags to the grocery store.

"I'm still not used to it, I always forget," Jennifer Schwartz acknowledged.

Under the proposal the City Council approved last week, Los Angeles will conduct an environmental impact study to see just what effect banning plastic grocery bags might have.

Then it will look at adopting a ban similar to Santa Monica's, which would allow people who forget to bring their reusable bags to the store to buy paper ones for 10 cents apiece.

No time frame for all that was given, prompting industry officials who oppose the ban to note it's still a long way from happening, and that they will argue that it would be a job killer for California while not significantly cleaning the environment.