Environmentalists felt a progressive bill was in the bag to make California the first state to ban “urban tumbleweeds” – those ubiquitous plastic shopping sacks.

But the advocates were wrong.

On Aug. 31, in its end-of-session flurry of horse trading and law making, the Senate rejected a statewide ban on retailers’ use of throwaway plastic bags. That came after an end-of-session flurry of lobbying and advertising by the plastics industry against such a ban.

With the Senate falling seven votes short on AB 1998 (which had already passed the Assembly), the advocates’ focus returns to city councils and county boards.

Now a host of counties and cities is preparing draft ordinances encouraging reusable bags while banning plastics bags and, oftentimes, slapping a surcharge on paper bags.

In Santa Monica, some retailers have voluntarily withdrawn plastic bags in anticipation of a city law, which is due to get its first reading on Oct. 12.

Some store owners feel such a local law would give them cover.

“A lot of times customers feel that they’re entitled to a free bag at a store,” said Dean Kubani, director of the Office of Sustainability for Santa Monica. “When everybody has to do it, it’s easier.”

Carol Misseldine, coordinator for the Green Cities California coalition, combed through her emails and counted 31municipalities either preparing bag-ban ordinances or passing resolutions supporting AB 1998. Many are seaside communities where a lot of voters are beachcombers sick of seeing masses of washed-up kelp and seaweed tangled with plastic trash.

Green Cities California has tried to hasten the process by making public a Master Environmental Assessment that cities can use in building an Environmental Impact Report for a bag-ban ordinance.

A wave of new bans in cities and counties might give “courage” to Sacramento law makers to take on the issue again and craft a consistent state standard, Misseldine said.

The new prospective laws this fall and winter would go in the books alongside the following California municipalities that have already passed plastic bag laws: San Francisco (the pioneer in 1997), Malibu, Palo Alto, the town of Fairfax, Manhattan Beach and Oakland. Implementation in the latter two cities was stymied by lawsuits filed by industry groups, such as the Save the Bags Coalition in Manhattan Beach.

The effort is international as well: Plastic bags have been banned in China, India and Bangladesh.

The most populous county in the U.S., Los Angeles, has authorized a plastic bag ban contingent upon the county reaching trash reduction goals and the potential for the state passing a ban.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky reports on his Web site that the county could have a draft ordinance ready as soon as October, and other cities in the county will follow suit. One of them, Calabasas, is waiting to see details in Los Angeles County’s EIR for the policy, said city public information officer Michael Hafken. City officials earlier this year had discussed the possibility of Calabasas passing a bag ordinance.

Ventura City Manager Rick Cole expects such an ordinance to be on the council agenda as early as Sept. 20. Cole recently blogged about the prevalence of plastic bags in “the Jungle,” the undergrowth in the Ventura River bottom where he pitched in on a cleanup with college students.

Among municipalities with recent discussions about drafting plastic bag laws are the cities of San Jose and Redondo Beach, and the counties of Marin, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, according to media reports.

In Santa Barbara, staff this fall expect to bring a proposal for a voter survey to the City Council. The survey would examine support for a city tax on paper and plastic bags, and the potential for making mandatory the city’s voluntary effort to encourage the use of reusable bags, said Lorraine Cruz Carpenter, environmental specialist for the city.

The city has teamed with the California Grocers Association and environmental groups in the Where’s Your Bag? program, encouraging shoppers to tote reusable bags.

The Santa Monica ordinance would ban plastic and authorize a 20-cent charge for paper, with 3.5 cents allotted for the city for costs of outreach and implementation, and the remainder to go to the stores to promote reusable bags, said Kubani.

“As far as the issue that this is a tax and it is going to hurt Santa Monica business, we haven’t heard that in our conversations with the chamber of commerce and the public,” said Kubani.

Plastic bags fail to break down in landfills for generations. Research has also shown that paper bags are a drag on the environment, in part because of heavy energy consumption in their manufacture.

Santa Monica prepared an Environmental Impact Report and put it out for public comment. City staff has been carefully responding to comments, Kubani said.

Kubani has been working closely with the city attorney’s office to prepare for the potential of a lawsuit. Kubani said he feels the draft ordinance is “airtight.”

Kubani expects compliance to be good, along the lines the city has experienced with its ban on polystyrene (such as Styrofoam) containers for takeout food, implemented in 2008. There are provisions for members of the public and environmental groups to report violations.

Lance Howland can be reached at lancehowland@aol.com