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Why Communities of Color in L.A. Voted Against Plastic Bags

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Plastic and trash found in the L.A. River 

Last October, heavy rains poured into Los Angeles. It was a welcome sight for those intensely aware of the drought. But for those who lived in the 500 block of Bernal Avenue in Boyle Heights, it was a rude awakening. That night, residents of Boyle Heights got home after a long day at work, only to be greeted by their neighborhood partly under water.

Maricela Navarette tells Los Angeles Times that her street looked “like a small lake.” When she got home, their basement was submerged in five feet of water, soaking clothing, furniture and precious photos.

Her neighborhood’s sudden plunge into the water was caused by clogged catch basins, the metal openings on the sidewalk that help water drain down to underground storm drains that lead to the ocean. The basins were congested by, among other things, plastic bags.

Bernal Avenue’s fate during the storm was just one of the reasons that local communities living on the east side of Los Angeles, by the Los Angeles River were spurred into action against plastic bags.

The communities banded together and came out to cast their vote Yes for Proposition 67 to uphold the ban on single-use plastic carryout bags in California, and No on Proposition 65, a rival measure placed by big plastic companies to direct money from the sale of paper bags to an environmental fund administered by the state, which non-profit Heal the Bay says, only serves “to confuse voters. It would only serve the interests of plastic bag companies and would distract from phasing out plastic bags entirely. The real issue is reducing the overall use of single-use bags – be they paper or plastic.”

The result was Proposition 67 winning approval statewide by 450,000 votes, with about 260,000 votes coming from ballots cast in Los Angeles County.

Their fight against plastic becomes even more urgent as the threat of floods looms even larger. An updated report by the US Army Corps of Engineers found that 3,000 parcels in eastside neighborhoods such as Atwater Village and Elysian Valley are at risk during major flooding. Its outdated report showed less than 900 properties in danger. Any effort to clear the streets of debris and allow floodwaters to pass would save residents thousands in flood damage.

Asking constituents to vote in specific ways for two separate measures was “no small feat” says Hans Johnson, president of the East Area Progressive Democrats and founder of the Institute for Smart Waste Policy. Johnson was one of many leaders who rallied the primarily Latino communities to action. The other groups also involved in the action were the L.A. Native American Indian Commission, Latino Coalition Against Plastic Pollution, Azul, the Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights, Mujeres de la Tierra, Blacks Against Garbage (BAG), San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps, and Communities for a New California Education Fund.

To help educate residents, volunteers made hundreds of calls, mailed thousands of stickers (which were made in Eastside Los Angeles), distributed thousands of fliers, and inexhaustibly explained the issues to neighbors.

Plastic bags aren’t just issues in communities by the beach, but also by the river, the coalition clarified. Though one doesn’t find marine animals choking in plastic bags in the Los Angeles River, it is however depressingly easy to spot plastic bags tangled in the water. A multi-year post cleanup report by Friends of the Los Angeles River estimates that 30 to 50 percent of trash picked up in its Elysian Valley site consists of plastic film. Plastic bags and other debris littering the streets also send the wrong message about the community to visitors. “It can depress property values and give people a negative perception of rental property value in local neighborhoods,” said Johnson. These negative aspects combined with the active threat of flooding makes the coalition’s stand more relevant to these riverside communities.

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Friends of The L.A. River cleanup 

The key to the success of the effort according to Johnson was the trust and long-standing relationship of its leaders to the community. “We had a trusted community leaders communicating with their own constituencies and communities,” said Johnson.

The coalition had Fr. Estrada, who talked to his congregation in Lincoln Heights about the cost of pollution. The Natural Resources Defense Council had estimated in 2013 that Californian taxpayers shell out about $500 million per year just to clean up plastic blight. The coalition also had Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Dolores Huerta, a labor leader and civil rights activist, and former astronaut José M. Hernández penning op-eds on the propositions. Huerta had also appeared on videos supporting the bag ban.

Johnson says it was a sustained effort over a long period of time that helped the coalition find its voice. Though it may sometimes be difficult to spur these communities into action, it was not the case for them. “Not when there was a relationship and the message was relevant,” said Johnson.