“There’s no such thing as a free bag,” Sacramento political guru Steven Maviglio told the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board at a meeting to urge a yes vote on Proposition 67. The initiative would uphold a state bill to prohibit retailers from giving customers free single-use plastic bags. Free bags — boo, hiss. Something must be done to protect those virtuous souls who carry reusable bags from having to subsidize less virtuous consumers’ profligate use of free bags. So Sacramento passed a bag ban. The more dubious a problem, the more determined the Legislature is to do something about it.
What next? Will Sacramento devise a way to charge shoppers who ride on elevators or escalators so that the virtuous folk who take the stairs don’t have to subsidize free-ride slouches?
Maviglio’s other complaint: Prop. 67 is “something we shouldn’t be talking about” — because the measure shouldn’t even be before California voters. Where the Legislature sticks its unwanted nose, the public should not step in. Everything was going swimmingly after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bag ban in 2014. Then the “vile” — Maviglio’s word — bag industry gathered the requisite signatures to put an initiative before voters. As representatives of the American Progressive Bag Alliance — aka the industry — told the San Francisco Chronicle, their side thought it was time to get input about the ban from the one group nobody asked: Californians.
Of course, this madness began in San Francisco with its 2007 “first in the nation” ban on plastic bags enacted to combat bag litter. It’s odd to work in a town where city hall makes me pay a dime for a bag if I buy soup for lunch, while its public health clinics hand out free needles so that drug addicts can leave them on the sidewalk.
In the beginning, bag-ban supporters said their law would save taxpayers money by eliminating a waste-management scourge — they didn’t seem to notice plastic bags made up less than 1 percent of California’s waste stream. They warned that plastic bags migrate toward the ocean where they hurt fish and other wildlife — and they used dodgy statistics to support their cause. The Surfrider Foundation warned plastics kill 1.5 million marine animals annually — with no sourcing. University of Washington environmental science professor Joel Baker told me, “I have no idea where they got that number.” He assigned students to track down that number, and “the trail goes cold.” The bag-ban folks warn about plastic in the ocean — without informing voters that the overwhelming amount of that plastic doesn’t come from bags. The bag bans were brewed with junk science.
At the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, David Lewis from Save the Bay said that plastic bags are “one of the most commonly found items” at coastal cleanups. Notice he did not discuss volume, but number of the teensy bags.
Because local bag bans allow retailers to sell thicker plastic bags (with five times as much plastic) for a fee, Phil Rozenski of the bag industry told the San Francisco Chronicle he believes plastic’s share of the waste stream is going up. Think about it: Bag manufacturers began to make those super-thin plastic bags in part because of their smaller environmental footprint. So in their wisdom, California Democrats have moved consumers away from lightweight bags and onto weightier plastic bags.
The ban includes the usual left-wing politics, with its exemption for participants in the state’s Women, Infants and Children supplemental food program. Can’t WIC participants be expected to bring reusable bags? I asked Lewis of Save the Bay. Don’t WIC recipients’ bags end up as litter the same way other bags do? He responded that state pols figured WIC recipients “didn’t have as many financial resources to acquire reusable bags.”
Meanwhile, Sacramento has no problem sticking it to shoppers. Besides, when there is an opportunity to make those who recycle feel virtuous, it doesn’t matter if the bag ban delivers.
How does the bag ban work in real life? As one who works in San Francisco while living in Alameda County, which also passed a bag ban, I’ll tell you how it works for me. I end up with five or so reusable bags stashed around my desk and more in my car and more in my home, where they gather dust because I often shop on the run and rarely remember to bring them to stores. So I have to pay for paper bags or heavier reusable plastic bags. In sum, I am buying more plastic and more paper. That’s a good thing, because I haven’t washed a recyclable bag in a couple of years, and health officials warn that consumers should wash their bags diligently to avoid E. coli infection.
Some day, my many reusable bags will spend their “end-of-life” — Rozenski’s term — in a government landfill, where they will take up more space than the single-use bags they have replaced. As Rozenski noted, the science behind the bag ban left the building a long time ago.
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