Mountain View Voice

Opinion - May 1, 2009

Bureaucrats botch plastic bag ban

Arbitrary standards do nothing to improve our environment

by Tom Means

The latest attempt to increase government revenue in the county is the proposed ordinance to tax/ban single-use plastic bags (SUPBs). Supposedly, they are responsible for a myriad of world problems: destruction of the oceans, the killing of millions of animals, clogging our landfills, global warming, and possibly piracy off the coast of Somalia!

Proponents simply assert that the bags are public enemy number one and must be stopped. They claim SUPBs impose an additional cost on society and that users don't pay their fair share. I feel the same way about politicians, but I don't believe we should ban them. OK, maybe we should make them pay higher taxes.

Given all of the propaganda, you have to wonder why the county is only considering a tax? Unfortunately, the approach by bureaucrats is a textbook case of how to impose your subjective values on others.

First, focus on an activity you don't like others doing, such as putting groceries in plastic bags. Next, come up with a clever name for this activity — Single Use Plastic Bags. Sounds simple but what exactly is a single use plastic bag?

The proposed ordinance goes to great lengths to come up with arbitrary standards to define an SUPB. These standards exclude what many would also consider SUBPs, such as plastic bags used to store fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. Items already packaged in plastic bags are also exempt. Not to mention all of the numerous single use plastic bags for sale: lawn and leaf, large trash can, extra large trash can, tall kitchen, medium wastebasket, small kitchen, trash compactor, scented, unscented, sandwich, snack, storage, freezer and so on.

All of these bags are found in grocery stores, used only once, but are exempt from the proposed tax. The ordinance also specifically excludes SUPBs at restaurants. Several other uses of SUPBs are completely ignored. My morning newspaper is delivered in an SUPB. The Disabled American Veterans want me to place my tax-deductible donations in a large brightly colored SUPB. Makes you wonder why just one type of plastic bag is being singled out.

Perhaps, SUPBs at grocery stores are like rats, nobody likes them and they are hard to get rid of. They account for a very small percentage of the overall trash or litter but have the problem of being small and light, making them highly visible and mobile. Attempts to ban them have not been easy. The city of San Francisco passed a ban on SUPBs but they decided the ban applied only to grocery stores with revenue above $2 million per year and to pharmacy chains with at least five outlets and one owner. Now that's a principled approach. As reported by Joe Eskenazi in the Jan. 9 SF Weekly, things have not gone so well.

Most proponents agree that the proposed tax is not perfect but feel that they must do something. If the county supervisors really want to do something, I would suggest they allow people to choose how they bag their purchases. If litter on public property is really the issue, they should work on reducing all litter, not just a particular kind. The major grocery stores in my area already provide convenient recycle bins for SUPBs.

Finally, are politicians willing to accept the fact that some customers prefer plastic bags to paper because they are better for the environment? Let's hope we can have an open debate to include all people, not just special interest groups, and decide how to create a better environment.

Tom Means is a member of the Mountain View City Council and a professor of economics at San Jose State University.


Posted by Chelsea Crawford, a resident of Monta Loma
on May 4, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Tom Means' guest opinion in the May 1, 2009 issue of The Voice begs for a response. I'm sure there are sound arguments for opposing the tax/ban on single use plastic bags (SUPBs), but unfortunately Means doesn't elucidate them, missing the opportunity to make a strong case for his opinion.

Mr. Means, I am bothered by your use of hyperbole ("plastic bags are responsible for the destruction of the oceans", "plastic bags are public enemy number one") to sway the reader's opinion. I think you might have been trying to be sardonic, but it comes off as defensive and frames proponents of the tax/ban inappropriately as unreasonable extremists.

Your main argument is that plastic grocery bags should not be banned because they are unfairly being singled out among the other types of SUPBs. The implication is that if the proponents want to ban grocery bags, they should also want to ban trash bags and sandwich baggies. But clearly all bags are not created equally.

Some SUPBs can be eliminated or reduced and some probably cannot. I don't foresee a time when a citizen purchases a cloth bag and then throws their trash or excess yard waste in it for pick up, never to see it again. Though perhaps one day the bags we use for such purposes will be biodegradable.

We can all try to reduce our use of some SUPBs by rethinking how we package things. We can pack snacks and meals to go in reusable containers. We can put produce loose in cloth bags or at least save and reuse the produce bags offered at the store.

None of these plastic bags existed prior to World War II. People have been buying food and disposing of waste historically without them. I'm willing to concede that some SUBPs and plastic packaging are fairly necessary for food safety and sanitation purposes and that they offer unmatched protection for the product and our health. Until a biodegradable substitute is found that matches the performance and economic viability of plastic packaging, we're probably stuck with it for certain purposes.

It's when convenience is the only real advantage that I feel we should do without. I'm not willing to give up the long-term sustainability of our environment for the short-term convenience of taking a bag home. Why are the proponents of the plastic bag tax singling out just one type of SUPB, the plastic shopping bag? Because it is one of the easiest places to begin the reduction in our use of plastic. (Single use plastic drinking water bottles are the other.)

Plastic shopping bags are completely unnecessary and conveniently replaceable now that every major grocery chain and most other retail outlets offer cloth tote bags next to the checkout counter. I have used cloth bags for my groceries and other retail purchases (hardware store, mall, drugstore) for over a decade. I keep 10 bags in the back of my car at all times and a couple in a pouch on my bike. I can carry them into the store with me and never have to take a plastic bag home. And I don't even have the really cool super convenient bags they offer now that fold up and zip into a tiny thing to throw into your purse or pocket.

You say that some customers prefer plastic bags to paper because they are better for the environment. Huh? Both have significant environmental impacts from cradle to grave. Whether you choose a paper or a plastic bag, resources are extracted, habitats altered, energy is used, emissions are created, and waste accumulates. And when you use it just one or a few times and then get rid of it and replace it with another, these impacts are multiplied. The environmentally friendly answer to "Paper or Plastic?" is "Neither. I brought my own bag!"

Being an economist, my guess is that you oppose the tax/ban based on a traditional economic worldview, which measures economic health via an assessment of relatively short-term financial losses and gains. But a traditional economy ignores the environment even while its gains are derived directly from it. This is unsustainable. Fortunately, leaders in economics are coming to realize this and the paradigm is shifting. I highly recommend to you and the readers the enlightening book "You Can't Eat GNP: Economics as if Ecology Mattered" by Eric A. Davidson.

We must make the transition away from an economy whose health is dependent on unsustainable extractive processes. This transition will be rocky and there will be casualties. Plastic bag manufacturers may need to find new livelihoods. It will be painful in the short term for them, just as it was for people invested in horses and buggies or steam engines or vinyl records.

Finally, I object to your undefined, intellectually lazy use of the term "special interest group". In recent years, this seems to have become a meaningless catch all phrase that can be applied to anyone who wants anything and vocalizes it. The implication is that it is automatically bad to be a special interest group. This despite the fact that we live in a democracy which is based on the idea that everyone has a voice and is expected to engage in advocating for themselves to the government through debate, voting, and elected representatives.

So, Mr. Means, you belong to several special interest groups yourself: economists, parents, educators, and Mountain View citizens, to name a few. Funnily enough, I belong to three of the same special interest groups that you do. As a fellow Mountain View citizen and parent trying to ensure the best possible future local community and world for my son to live in and as an environmental educator, I too hope "we can have an open debate…and decide how to create a better environment". Let's start by not labeling each other, avoiding exaggeration, and taking a careful look at both the environmental and economic impacts of SUPB use.

Posted by Johnny Robots, a resident of North Whisman
on May 4, 2009 at 11:39 pm

People who have kids drive the cost of everything up, short-term AND long-term. The planet is overpopulated, and THAT is the really big problem. I don't have any kids and I'm not going to have any. Now get your hands off of my SUPB, one size does not fit all.

Posted by Chelsea Crawford, a resident of Monta Loma
on May 5, 2009 at 3:51 pm


Why the vitriol? I didn't claim that one size fits all and I agree with you on that. So, there's no argument there. I didn't even say whether I agree with the ban or not and how it is being carried out. So, my hands aren't on your SUPB. I simply suggested that even without a ban, people such as yourself might consider reducing your use of SUPBs on your own. An open-minded person would at least consider it.

I also agree with you essentially about the environmental impacts of population growth, so no argument there. However, you must realize it's not quite that simple. The level of environmental impact for any particular issue is a function of the population as well as the consumption per capita of that population and the amount of impact the particular technology has.

So, you can have a small population with a low birth rate, but still a very high environmental impact if the technologies being utilized have relatively high impacts and the people are affluent and consume disproportionately large amounts of energy and raw materials and produce disproportionately large amounts of pollution and waste.

The US is a world leader in consumption and waste production per capita even though our birth rate is lower than many other regions, so our impact is still high.

And if birth rates drop too low because everyone decides not to have kids, then you are left with a situation like Slovenia or France where the birth rates are so low that the economic future of the country looks bleak and families are actively being encouraged to have babies by the government. It's pretty difficult to sustain a nation with a small youthful workforce with low productivity but a much larger aging population with healthcare and retirement needs. You do the math.

It's all too easy to log on and write a bitter "soundbite" and pat yourself on the back for shooting my comment down, but the issues are way more complicated than you make them out to be.

Posted by another MV citizen, a resident of Blossom Valley
on May 5, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Thank you Chelsea for a thoughtful and educational response to Mr. Means' editorial. Your points are accurate and cleraly articulated.

The popular plastic bag was not widely used in the U.S. until 1977. Today, the average Californian uses hundreds of these bags a year, at great environmental cost (for both production and clean-up). As you stated, there are simple steps we can each choose to take to lessen our impact on the planet by reducing the use of these bags. We have so many bigger battles to fight towards becoming a sustainable society. Why would people resist taking small meaningful steps toward leaving a better world for our children?

Onward to the plastic water bottle!

Posted by jean-michel cousteau, a resident of another community
on May 5, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Means is right that plastic bags are just the tip of the iceberg. Apparently he thinks that therefore we shouldn't do anything about it. This makes no sense.

All our trash basically winds up in a landfill or in the ocean. The ocean is the big problem. Heavy stuff falls to the bottom and sits on the ocean floor. Light stuff, especially plastic, floats on the surface forever and tangles up the wildlife. The chemicals, of course, poison the entire ecosystem.

One of the things we can do is make sure things are thrown away properly. An even better idea is to WASTE LESS. That's exactly what the single use bag laws are all about -- getting people to work on wasting less. Means thinks that equals government mind control or that it won't work, or something. It isn't mind control (it's a simple economic driver of the sort conservative economists like him ought to appreciate), and it's worked everywhere they've tried it.

If arguing about bags and bottles gets people clued in to what's going, that's good. Check out this quick video for an idea. There's plenty more for those who are interested:

Web Link

Posted by MV resident, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 5, 2009 at 11:23 pm


Thank you for choosing not to reproduce. The world will be better when your DNA dies with you.

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