Sacking the debate on bags


Lawmakers in California have recently proposed a law banning the use of plastic bags in retail outlets. Predictably, folks on the extreme end of conservatism decry this as the harbinger of fascism, communist oppression and the growing “nanny state.” While their ire is often justified by the equally polemic machinations of California liberalism, on this issue, conservatives are just plain wrong.

If online discussions are an accurate meter of their fervor, a ban on plastic bags is more apocalyptic than the global warming to which they contribute. Of course, this side of the aisle is also rife with science-flouting climate change deniers. As such, it comes as little surprise. Near complete scientific agreement about climate change appears to have no purchase with these folks. You can thank the thought control activities of the Koch family for that.

Accordingly, conservatives just can’t countenance being deprived of their inalienable right to plastic bags. Perhaps none of them remembers the decades that we all used biodegradable brown paper bags. Groceries somehow managed to get from store to cupboard without plastic.

The reasons for the change far outweigh the excuses for complacency. To begin, plastic bags as they are now made, are comprised mainly of petrochemicals. That means we’re wasting our finite supply of oil to make them. It also keeps us economically tethered to a region of the world where people largely hate Americans.

We’re also putting millions of tons of them into landfills every year. Once in the landfills, they do not biodegrade. They just stay there — becoming our children’s problem.

But wait, aren’t plastic bags recyclable? Yes, they most certainly are. Unfortunately less than one percent of them actually get recycled. Moreover, recycling doesn’t stop demand for new bags. The recycling process requires that new materials be introduced into the stream because any given material has a limited number of reformulations before it loses important structural qualities.

So even if we compelled their recycling — which would also be hyperbolically analogized to the end of the world as we know it — that’s neither an effective solution, nor a final one.

In the alternative, we could tax them to discourage their overuse and promote alternatives — again a proposal akin to a sentence in the gulags.

Paper bags on the other hand are made from a renewable resource and they biodegrade. Even paper bags have their drawbacks. They require a great amount of resources to manufacture and distribute. They have their own cycle of degradation and demand.

A third, more preferable alternative exists: bringing your own reusable bag. Detractors rail against this as “dirty” and “time consuming.” Yes, reusable cloth sacks can get dirty, but just as dirty socks don’t get thrown out or re-worn, dirty bags can be renewed through the magic of a washing machine.

With regard to their potential to clog up grocery lines as clerks struggle to fill them, this too is a non-point. This “struggle” could be eliminated with about three minutes of training.

Of course, none of this gets to the real heart of the matter. It’s not that conservatives don’t want a better, cleaner, less wasteful world. It’s that they can’t stand the idea of the government telling them to do anything differently. A minor change of custom transmogrifies into some kind of holocaust.

That kind of thinking is not rugged individualism, it’s just petulant childishness. When the petroleum lobby gets in the mix with self-promoting horror stories and manifest destiny mythology, good, everyday people get led down an unfortunate path. Using a different kind of grocery sack isn’t a ding on freedom. It’s just ludicrous to think it might be.