Should government regulate plastic bags?

DOWNEY - For the past four weeks in this space we've been investigating the controversial issue of plastic carryout bags. We've talked about the culture of grocery shopping in the United States as differentiated from the BYOBag culture of grocery shopping in Europe, and how the plastic carryout bag has become globally ubiquitous since its introduction only 30 years ago. We've discussed the hidden costs of plastic carryout bags to the public, as well as the still somewhat nebulous question as to whether or not plastic carryout bags have a measurable impact on human health.(Incidentally, there is no question that some components of plastic are carcinogenic and that plastic molecules leach toxins which are ingested by marine life with deleterious effects, but we're talking here simply about the bag as it is normally used by humans, not about its constituent molecular parts.) We have also noted the sobering fact that vast plastic pollution has invaded the world's oceans. Looming over each of these inquiries is this overriding concern, the elephant in the room: Should government regulate plastic bags? The fact is that legislation is already in place in California that mandates recycling bins in grocery stores, and--significantly--that fees may be charged only for paper bags, NOT for plastic bags. Last year an attempt to ban plastic carryout bags statewide failed in the Assembly at the 11th hour prior to summer adjournment, despite broad-based acceptance from many major stakeholders, including grocery chain stores. The net effect of California state legislation, therefore, is a feeble attempt to encourage recycling, combined with a horrible environmental compromise that sets environmentally wasteful paper bags as the only fee-based alternative. In simple terms, the state of California colossally botched its attempt to regulate plastic bags. Complicating this scenario, local agencies considering plastic bag regulation must in most cases follow the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) which mandates a complex Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Notwithstanding their understandable rationale, these processes are expensive and time consuming. Finally, if a local entity does indeed pass legislation, it will almost certainly be sued by the Coalition to Save the Plastic Bag (STPB), an industry group devoted to litigation and funded by plastic bag manufacturers. All of a sudden the weighty philosophical and moral issues of plastic carryout bags are reduced to the gritty underside of politics and government. Here at home in Downey, a ban on plastic bags was introduced by then Councilman Kirk Cartozian in the fall of 2008. It was voted down by the other council members, and in its place an advisory volunteer Green Task Force was appointed, which has since been recommissioned on a permanent basis. But in light of a persistent recession already weakening business, and on top of all the complication and expense outlined above, it hardly seems the time for the City of Downey to pursue a ban on plastic bags. This story is not over, however, depending on the political climate and the will of the people. The City of Manhattan Beach banned plastic carryout bags in 2008 and was promptly sued by STPB. Its ban was recently affirmed by the California Supreme Court. Mayor Richard Montgomery, who presided over the ban and its Supreme Court affirmation, has told this writer that the citizens of Manhattan Beach, including school children, clamored for the ban. So the story finally ends where it began, at least for now: with the freedom of each citizen to make his or her choice on the broad spectrum of convenience to morality. Lars Clutterham is a Downey resident and charter member of the city of Downey's Green Task Force and Downey Chamber of Commerce's Green Committee.

********** Published: September 01, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 20