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Bag issue more than money, jobs

By: Allan L. Griff

May 30, 2012

I was disappointed to hear about the Los Angeles decision [to ban plastic and paper bags], but just as disappointed to hear our responses, as they mainly dealt with money and jobs. The public doesn’t want to hear these arguments, and they just add fuel to the image of big corporations saying what they have to say to maximize their profits, executive bonuses, etc. That’s why the Los Angeles City Council’s May 23 vote was 13-1.

We have to stress the environmental advantages of the bags (sanitation, other uses in home, reduced frequency of shopping, recyclability), and perhaps the personal conveniences (can carry more at a time, no leaks, no breaks), and point to the bag-tossers as litter-pigs whose habits should not deprive the law-abiding majority of these environmental advantages and conveniences. 

At the same time, we need to put the ocean-fouling argument in numerical perspective. Under it all, we should be dealing with the causes of “chemophobia” and its subset, “plastophobia,” but that’s another topic.

The shopping frequency is an important argument that has not been loudly heard. It is especially important in LA, which is so spread out that much shopping is done by car. Ten or more bags is not uncommon with plastic, less so with paper. Are people going to carry into the store 10-15 reusables? The difference is in the energy-consumed-per-car trip — more trips, more energy lost moving the 3,000-plus pound car to and from the market. 

Another neglected item is the prevalence of double-bagging, which is unnecessary with well-made bags. Checkout clerks think customers want it, and many customers do. The major supermarkets must agree to take the lead here, and put up signs at each checkout lane indicating that their bags are tough enough to be used singularly, and make sure they are. Allow customers to demand doubles if they must, but make them feel wasteful instead of environmentally holy. I know this means less total sales, but since we are dealing with zero as the alternative, tough single-layer bags are a savior, and we’ll get on the right side (less waste) for a change. 

I’ll be teaching a short course this fall in San Francisco for the University of California, Berkeley, on plastics in the environment. I may change only a few minds, but I hope they are important ones, and the media will be invited, too.

It may already be too late, but maybe not.

Allan L. Griff

El Cerrito, Calif.