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Diana Shaw: In the paper or plastic debate, neither works

Democratic Voices

Posted: June 28, 2010 10:17 p.m.
Updated: June 29, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Apparently Paul Strickland never heard the adage, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

In Strickland’s June 18 column in The Signal (“Paper, plastic or green bag fee”), he expressed shock and outrage at Assembly Bill 1998, the bill that would impose a statewide minimum nickel fee for plastic shopping bags. Somehow, Strickland believes customers are currently getting those plastic bags for free. I hate to break it to ya, Paul, but when retailers give away “free” bags, they pass their costs to their customers.

Actually, when it comes to plastic bags, the lunch is really expensive. While Strickland has been having paranoid fantasies about how plastic-bag regulations amount to a nanny-state takeover, the facts are sobering: Californians use about 19 billion plastic bags per year, according to an AB 1998 legislative committee analysis.

The California Waste Management Board says it costs the state $25 million annually to landfill discarded plastic bags.

More than 45,000 tons of those plastic bags are disposed by Los Angeles County residents alone.

In one day, volunteers from the Ocean Conservancy cleaned up more than 71,000 plastic bags. Those volunteers are hard to come by. Cities and counties normally pay the cost of plastic-bag cleanup and disposal, and taxpayers foot the bill.
If you’re thinking my concern is limited to the thousands of sea turtles and dolphins that choke on plastic bags, think again.

Plastic bags, which take about 1,000 years to decompose in landfills, don’t just fly around and make a mess along beaches and freeways. They clog storm drains and thereby create stagnant mosquito-breeding pools. If the taxpayer doesn’t pay for cleanup, we run the risk of encephalitis outbreaks. Do a little research on what happens when a mosquito transfers encephalitis to a human. If it happens to be someone you love, don’t plan on them coming back to share a life with you.

Plastic-bag production costs taxpayers in other ways, too. AlterNet reports that in the United States alone, 12 million barrels of oil is used annually to make plastic bags. Maybe Strickland is for business as usual when it comes to the world’s diminishing oil resources. But even BP’s Tony Hayward will agree, all those ships and people trying to cap that seemingly unstoppable oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico don’t come without a tab.

Plastic-bag health hazards, cleanups and disposal costs are freaking out the L.A. City Council. Beginning July 1, Los Angeles will require shoppers to bring their own bag or pay 25 cents for a paper or biodegradable bag.

Municipalities all over California have reached the breaking point with plastic bag cleanup and disposal issues, and are proposing their own regulations. That’s why the California Grocers Association — which will benefit from statewide consistency — supports AB 1998.

Strickland gloats over the example of free enterprise in a market that encourages reusable bags, a laudable example indeed. But, wait a minute. Starting in 2007, AB 2449 required stores to offer reusable bags. So, this particular free enterprise example was inspired by state action.

I predict AB 1998-induced prosperity will inject itself into the reusable bag industry. My son gave me a collapsible nylon bag that I happily carry in my purse. While Strickland whines about the nanny state takeover, representatives who are protecting California taxpayers are trying to ensure we know the real costs of plastic bags and that we have a choice.

By the way, paper bags are just as bad, if not worse. That’s another story. The answer has to be reusable bags.

Strickland is a pied piper. His “nanny state” sound bite is seductive to those who don’t have all the facts, but it doesn’t contribute to a solution. Reference to the free market is a red herring when the true costs of plastic bags aren’t obvious to consumers. That isn’t leadership.

By voting against AB 1998, his boss, Cameron Smyth, took the easy way out on the backs of today’s taxpayers and future generations.

Diana Shaw is a Saugus resident and is running as a Democrat to represent the 38th Assembly District. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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