Nobody likes plastic bags. Sure, maybe you’ve got a dog and you use them on your morning and evening walks. But is that reason enough to flood the landscape with them? I can’t think of a single item of contemporary American life that better represents our throw-away society.
Maybe it’s time for me to move to California, because Governor Jerry Brown* just signed SB270 into law, which bans single-use plastic bags in grocery and convenience stores. This makes California the first state to enact a ban, although many municipalities in the state—including Los Angeles and San Francisco—have already passed anti-bag ordinances. Nationwide, other Cities on the Edge of the Zeitgeist, from Washington, DC, Chicago, IL, and Portland, OR, to Austin, TX, and Seattle, WA, have banned the bag. I’m thinking that Michael Bloomberg, were he still mayor of New York City, would have hopped on this bandwagon too.
Let’s take a look at what the SB270 law actually entails:
- Bans plastic bags at supermarkets and large grocery stores beginning on July 1, 2015.
- Bans plastic bags at convenience stores beginning on July 1, 2016.
- Does not ban plastic bags for fruits, vegetables, or meat.
- Does not ban plastic bags at other retailers.
- Allows grocery stores to charge at least 10 cents per paper bag.
- Allows businesses to charge at least 10 cents per compostable bag.
What I don’t know is what happens when you buy your groceries at Target or Wal-Mart, which are the types of retailers exempt from the ban. Do cashiers stuff all your shoelaces, batteries, Halloween decorations, and hand towels in plastic bags and leave your milk and Campbell’s soup for you to figure out? I assume most retailers will simply plastic bag everything and tack on the plastic bag charge unless you tell them otherwise.
Regardless of the details, the ban seems like a step in the right direction. Soon there will be no need for Ian Frazier’s bag snagger, a device designed to untangle plastic bags from trees, which was so lovingly profiled in the New Yorker back in 2004. We will all be carrying our reusable bags on the subways, in our cars, or while scoring rides on Lyft. Before you know it, we’ll all be riding bicycles to the farm market and eating locally grown quinoa and vegan chili after converting our houses to solar power.
Not so fast, granola hipster. Plans are afoot to repeal California’s law, on account of the fact that it will hurt the environment, fer cryin’ out loud. Who would repeal such a sensible law? Why, the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA), which believes the ban will “jeopardize thousands of California manufacturing jobs, hurt the environment and fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets.” (Paging George Orwell.) The APBA’s website states that the plastic bag industry employs 30,800 American workers at 349 plants across the country.
I really want to know where all these giant plastic bag factories are, and why they employ more people than ALL EIGHT OF THE FORD MOTOR COMPANY’S ASSEMBLY PLANTS IN THE UNITED STATES COMBINED. (Total hourly workers = 30,513). Either someone is lying, or the plastic bag industry is in serious need of process improvement.
Even assuming that the 30,800 number is anywhere near reality, it still begs the question: Should we continue to employ people whose jobs are now irrelevant and/or actively harmful to the environment? According to the APBA’s logic, we should never shut down any factory because it would eliminate jobs, dammit, nevermind the fact that the product the factory makes is unnecessary.
The Bag the Ban campaign, funded by bag maker Hilex Poly, painstakingly outlines the arguments raised by the APBA, in which they are cast as the good guys who are working to save jobs, invest in green technology, and keep costs down for consumers. As a lobbying organization, of course, they can say whatever they want and back it up with statistics lovingly crafted from their own delusions.
One of the arguments SB270’s detractors make is that paying for plastic or paper bags amounts to an unnecessary tax on the beleaguered American consumer. You can call the law’s 10 cent fee for bags a “tax” if you want, but I prefer to call it paying for something. Only in America do people assume we have the “right” to free plastic bags, but not basic healthcare.
It is true, of course, that plastic bags can be recycled, and it’s great when they are. And it’s true that they take up a small amount of space in landfills. But ultimately, isn’t it better if something unnecessary (like a bag for a $1.29 tube of Chapstick) doesn’t exist at all?
*Fun fact: When Jerry Brown (aka “Governor Moonbeam”) ran for president in 1992, I spent many hours in his Milwaukee campaign office painstakingly hand-painting a red, white, and blue poster that read “Nihilists for Brown.” I proudly displayed the sign in my apartment window for months. And then I voted for Clinton.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.