Posted by Chelsea Crawford, a resident of the Monta Loma neighborhood, 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.