A used plastic bag is left on the ground by a shopper in front of Ralphs on Olympic Boulevard on Tuesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — A day after a proposal to bar grocery stores and other retailers from handing out free, single-use plastic bags in California failed to pass the state Senate by a 14-21 vote, local backers of the ban blasted Sacramento lawmakers and said they would move ahead quickly with a local version of the law.

“The oil industry is trying to get the best of us in California and so far they’ve shown that they’ve been able to block us at the Legislature, but they can’t beat us city by city,” said Councilman Terry O’Day.

The Santa Monica City Council is scheduled to take up local bag ban similar to the failed state proposal, authored by Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), on Oct. 12.

“This Herculean effort with wide-ranging support was not only beaten, but it was beaten badly. And that just shows how dysfunctional Sacramento is right now,” said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, which sponsored the statewide bill.

The bill, AB 1998, passed the state Assembly in June but in recent weeks faced fierce lobbying from the American Chemistry Council, which represents the plastics industry.

Gold said the margin of the bill’s defeat in the Senate was a testament to the strength of the ACC. A coalition of environmental groups, grocery stores and labor unions had backed the plastic bag ban. Gov. Schwarzenegger also had backed the bill. Nine democrats voted against AB 1998.

“Frankly, it was an embarrassing night for the state of California,” Gold said.

In a statement, the ACC applauded the lawmakers’ decision.

“We congratulate Senate members for discarding a costly bill that provides no real solutions to California’s litter problem and would have further jeopardized California’s already strained economy,” said Tim Shestek, the ACC’s senior director of state affairs.

In a radio interview with Patt Morrison on KPCC on Wednesday, Brownley said the bill would have created green jobs and been “a real opportunity for consumers to make a very significant, cost-free contribution to California’s economy and California’s environment.”

She blamed the bill’s failure on the plastic industry’s influence.

“At the end of the day, the American Chemistry Council won,” she said.

The bill would have banned California grocery stores from giving out free plastic bags beginning in 2012 and would have rolled out the ban to smaller retailers a year later. Under AB 1998, stores could have sold paper bags made out of at least 40 percent recycled material at cost.

Republicans and some Democrats opposed it, saying it would add an extra burden on consumers and businesses at a time when many already are struggling financially.

The Senate took final action at the very end of the legislative session, reflecting how difficult it had been to muster support. The bill received just 14 votes in the Senate, seven short of the majority it needed.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, was one of the Democrats who voted against the bill. She said the state instead should offer incentives for reducing the use of plastic bags before imposing a statewide mandate.

Brownley had amended her bill in the days leading up to the Senate vote in an ultimately futile attempt to gain more support.

Most significantly, she removed a provision that would have imposed a 5-cent fee for customers who forget to bring their own bag and need to buy a recycled paper one. The proceeds would have gone entirely to the retailer.

Under the revised bill, retailers would have been allowed to charge only what it costs them to buy paper bags. Stores would have been required to provide free bags to shoppers who rely on government assistance.

A state law that took effect in 2007 already requires supermarkets and other large retailers to provide plastic bag recycling bins.

China and India have plastic bag bans, and U.S. cities like San Francisco, Malibu and Palo Alto have passed their own laws barring free single-use plastic bags.

Local officials said they expect to soon add Santa Monica to the list.

Councilman Kevin McKeown said he’s pushing to bring the issue to the council as soon as possible, perhaps this month.

“I’m doing this in support of Julia Brownley, whose efforts on AB 1998 were heroic, and because we’ve waited too long already to take action while plastic bags continue to litter the landscape and kill marine life,” he said.

City Hall has completed an environmental review of the proposed ban and is circulating the study for public comment.

“We feel like we’ve fulfilled our legal obligations, but we anticipate that given what’s at stake financially we’ll get sued [by the plastics industry] anyway,” City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said.


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