Sunday Commentary II: Errors and Misperceptions Dog Plastic Bag Debate

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plastic-bag-putah

The debate against an ordinance related to carryout plastic bags has been dogged by misperceptions and outright errors.  I will fall on the sword for some of this.  One of our readers for months has been telling me to stop calling it a plastic bag ban.

The reason I had been insisting on calling it a proposed plastic bag ban is, frankly, I do not believe in using sanitizing language – let us call a spade a spade, and then debate the merits of the proposal.  The problem is that I was wrong.  It is not a ban on plastic bags at all or at least all kinds of plastic bags from all businesses; it is in fact an ordinance that deals much more generally with single-use carryout bags.

There are several important implications in my error.  The first is that there is only one type of bag that is banned – and that is the single-use carryout bag, and only in larger chains.

Both Councilmember Brett Lee and Mayor Joe Krovoza bring up a fairness issue and I think it is a reasonable point, but in the end, this is not about fairness, this is about effective public policy.  Why only ban one type of bag from specific retailers?  As Jacques DeBra pointed out on Tuesday, that is the source of the vast majority of the bags that are used and thus the vast majority of the problem.

The fairness issue, once you dig down, does not exist.  Why?  Because while the bag ordinance could cripple small, locally owned retailers who are exempted from it, it has virtually no impact on the big grocery stores and other chains that the ordinance targets.

There is a reason why grocer’s associations support plastic bag bans – it does not hurt their business.

According to city staff, this ordinance would get at about 90 percent of the plastic bags in the city.  So you have a policy that does not hurt those who are most vulnerable and yet deals with the vast majority of the problem – is that really unfair?

I just happened to be visiting my folks’ house in San Luis Obispo this weekend.  When their bag ban hit, the major chains all had free giveaways of reusable bags.  So my father showed me his college, which even included bags from places like Kohl’s.

This is free marketing and advertising for big chains, who can afford to give away reusable bags.

People wonder why ban plastic bags, but charge for paper bags.  Well, if you do not, people simply go from one single-use bag to another.  That does not solve the problem.

The remarkable thing is that most people will not pay the ten cents for their bags.  For instance, my father has said he either always has reusable bags in the trunk of his car or, on the few occasions where he hasn’t, he does what he would at Costco, and just puts all of the merchandise directly into his trunk.

Think about it.  Davis residents already frequent the Davis Food Co-op in great frequency.  They already have this policy in place.  Those of us who go to Costco are already familiar with free-floating merchandise.

In other words, this isn’t that radical a change.

Another critical point for those concerned with food contamination in re-usable bags or doggy poop, the city is not banning all plastic bags.  People will still have plastic produce bags and they will still have plastic newspaper bags.

By way of example is the large pile of bags my father still has for when my sister comes with the dogs or either of us come with the babies and their diapers.

Councilmember Brett Lee, I think, got this issue wrong last week.

He said, “There’s a whole group of businesses which are not touched by this approach. Are plastic bags bad? Or are they only bad if they come from a supermarket?””

Bob Dunning today follows up and writes, “If plastic bags are bad, they’re bad. Period. It doesn’t really matter how big the retailer using them happens to be. To be fair, you have to ban all of them.”

That sounds like a good argument.  However, it misses two key points.  First, it is not that plastic bags are bad, it is the quantity of the plastic bags that are the problem.  The ordinance would, according to the city’s numbers, create a huge reduction in their use.

Second, the fairness issue again misses the key point that fairness is not simply a matter of applying something to all people or entities in the same way.  It is a matter of tailoring public policy in a way that reduces the impact on those most vulnerable.  That is why, for example, some people can ride the bus for free while others cannot, because the impact of the fee is not uniform across all populations.

The interesting thing is that a misreporting in the initial article leads to a misreporting in today’s Dunning article.

Writes Mr. Dunning, “Initially, we heard the council was willing to entertain a plastic bag ban for major retailers with gross sales above a certain amount. Now we’re hearing they want to ban any bag that moves at any establishment whatsoever, regardless of size or sales.”

Mr. Dunning then quotes the original Enterprise story that stated, “But Mayor Joe Krovoza and Councilman Brett Lee seemed to want to extend the ban to all businesses, as both didn’t believe it would be equitable to force only part of the business community to comply.”

Actually, it is not clear that either want to extend the ban to all businesses.  Brett Lee does not want a ban at all – he wants a fee for plastic and paper bags for all retailers.

Joe Krovoza only asked the staff to re-evaluate the exemptions.

In the end, with the exception of the bag accounting requirements, I think the ordinance got it right.  It will eliminate 90% of the uses of single-use carryout bags, but will do so only  for the businesses that can afford it, for those it will not create an undue burden upon.

Once the council evaluates this policy without the misperceptions, I think they will reach a similar conclusion.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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27 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary II: Errors and Misperceptions Dog Plastic Bag Debate”

  1. Frankly

    [i]First, it is not that plastic bags are bad, it is the quantity of the plastic bags that are the problem.[/i]

    Well great then. Tell that to Flipper as he is gasping for breath with that small-store plastic bag wrapped around his snout.

    Dunning is correct. The “ban-plastic-bag” people are making a case for plastic bags being bad for the environment. They are not making a case that there is a certain quantity of bags that are bad for the environment.

    Can’t have your cake and eat it to. Either ban ALL plastic bags or ban ZERO plastic bags.

  2. medwoman

    Frankly

    [quote]Dunning is correct. The “ban-plastic-bag” people are making a case for plastic bags being bad for the environment. They are not making a case that there is a certain quantity of bags that are bad for the environment.

    Can’t have your cake and eat it to. Either ban ALL plastic bags or ban ZERO plastic bags[/quote]

    An interesting argument for the ever extremist position. No middle ground. No shades of grey. Well at least you are consistent in your world view. However, is it not possible that there could be some nuance here ?
    Perhaps plastic bags might be the best solution for some situations (to carry gold fish home from the pet store for example) but not the best solution for many other situations ?

    Could we not see the value in minimizing the use of a substance that some see as an environmental threat while others view it as a convenience to which they are entitled by free choice ?

  3. Growth Izzue

    LOL Frankly, or those birds that were supposedly found in the slew caught up in plastic bags. I wonder if those bags were from the Woodland Nugget? Since I reuse every plastic bag and am now going to have to buy plastic liners for my small house garbage containers this is nothing more than a trade-off. The only difference is I’m out money that I might have spent downtown.

  4. Frankly

    [i]Could we not see the value in minimizing the use of a substance that some see as an environmental threat while others view it as a convenience to which they are entitled by free choice ?[/i]

    That would be fine if the demand was nuanced also. For example, to charge for bags and then use the revenue to spend on related cleanup. But the demand is “ban”. And the justification for this has been that plastic bags are bad for the environment.

    So if you want to express your displaeasure about the lack of nuance, please look into the mirror while doing so.

  5. Don Shor

    I’d say this thing is going forward now. Fortunately they will be taking out the paper bag regulations. In fact, I think it is now appropriate to call it a ‘plastic bag ban’ because it will apply to most stores and most plastic bags. You’ll still have some for produce and meat that you can reuse.
    I am curious how Davis Downtown (DDBA) representatives feel about this now.

  6. Frankly

    GI, yeah I agree.

    Part of what I see going on here is some frantic anxiety from Davis liberals that they are falling behind the more active Bay Area liberals in the implementation of impressive progressive environmental policy. It is identity politics at it finest. Think about all those save-the-butterflies-and-poor-people cocktail parties where academic liberals and other wealthy liberals congregate and talk about all the environmental and social justice progress they have accomplished. Those unfortunate Davis liberals would have less to brag about, and they would feel their past badge of extreme progressivism slipping away.

    I think it is this irrational anxiety of being left behind that is driving the opinions of many Davis liberals that we should ban bags. So it is easy to poke holes in their attempts at rational justification.

  7. medwoman

    Frankly

    [quote]So if you want to express your displaeasure about the lack of nuance, please look into the mirror while doing so.[/quote]

    Please show me where I, personally, have ever advocated a “ban” as the best approach.

  8. Frankly

    For all the dog owners impacted by this stupid and harming city ban on single-use plastic bags, I suggest we either leave fido’s poo where he deposits it, or otherwise suffer the inconvenience of using some other material (paper?) to clean up for fido and then present this as a gift of fertilizer on the doorsteps of our esteemed city council members.

  9. medwoman

    Frankly

    Or we could do what at least one city in France has done. Pay people to collect the poop of those who do not clean up after their own dogs and deposit on their own doorsteps with a sign readying “You forgot something”.

    I am a dog owner. I fail to see the inconvenience of using another method to clean up after Syd as “suffering”.
    I also fail to see why anyone else should have to subsidize my “free bags” to clean up Syd’s poop through increased prices at their store of choice, when, if I insist on using plastic, no one is going to stop me from purchasing small plastic sandwich bags which I can then use to my hearts content having paid for them myself.
    Or do you only object to “freebies” when they do not directly benefit you ?

  10. Growth Izzue

    [quote]Or do you only object to “freebies” when they do not directly benefit you ? [/quote]

    Medwoman, does your free parking space at the hospital, your company 401k match or retirement benefits, your free healthcare benefits, or any number of things that you might get free through your employment at the hospital effect other people’s cost of getting healthcare at the hospital or clinic where you work? Maybe if you had to pay for those yourself other’s hospital costs would be lower or do you only object to having to pay for someone else’s freebies (plastic bags) when it doesn’t effect you?

  11. Frankly

    [i]Please show me where I, personally, have ever advocated a “ban” as the best approach.[/i]

    medwoman, my mistake. I thought you supported the ordnance.

    Single-use plastic bags are not freebies. All retailer business costs are factored into the pricing of their products. That includes the costs of plastic bags. I don’t think you understand how retail business works.

    I also think that you and other Davis liberals do not respect individual freedom and choice except when it fits snuggly into your narrow constraints of political correctness. Once outside the lines of your worldview, to hell with those that disagree even when there is material harm..

    There are a couple of factual considerations that back my points here:

    – These plastic bags are not single-use. They are used at least twice by most people. In many cases the second use is to contain and discard waste. The impacts from the amount of waste that will no longer be contained or discarded have been disregarded by those hell-bent on getting the ordnance passed.

    – The first and second use provide significant convenience for the user. There is real material damage from the disappearance of these conveniences resulting from a ban. This damage is also disregarded by those hell-bent on passing the ordnance.

    – A ban of any type contributes to a greater partisan divide since those on the political right prefer that their personal choice and freedoms not be further eroded. What we should be doing instead is being clear and honest about the true root problem, and working together for an acceptable solution. Charging a fee for each bag that can be collected to be spent entirely on related environmental impact mitigation would be supported by most people with a right-leaning political worldview. But then a Davis Liberal would lack those bragging rights at their save-the-world cocktail parties.

  12. Growth Izzue

    Medwoman, you can also get plastic bags for free if you so choose, nobody is stopping you. You’ve mad a choice and that’s fine. If I choose to always drink from my own water bottle instead of using Davis public drinking fountains should everyone else have to pay a fee to use those fountains because I’m subsidizing their use? Do you see where this could all go using your argument?

  13. Don Shor

    [quote] These plastic bags are not single-use. They are used at least twice by most people. [/quote]
    Yes: all the plastic bags we use at our shop are second-use plastic and paper bags from the grocery store, which people use to carry out their bedding plants and boxes of fertilizer.

  14. Growth Izzue

    Don Shor:
    [quote]Yes: all the plastic bags we use at our shop are second-use plastic and paper bags from the grocery store, which people use to carry out their bedding plants and boxes of fertilizer. [/quote]

    This is the point that the plastic bag banners refuse to acknowledge. We’ll all be buying plastic bags bags just to take the place of the grocery store bags that we reused.

  15. JustSaying

    [quote]“Because while the bag ordinance could cripple small, locally owned retailers who are exempted from it, it has virtually no impact on the big grocery stores and other chains that the ordinance targets….”[/quote]I’m still struggling to understand this concept. This makes little sense. Big stores give away lots of bags; little stores give away fewer bags. Bags are a certain percentage of the cost of doing business–who has determined whether big grocery stories operate on larger profit margins than the downtown shops, convenience stories and restaurants?

    It’s obvious this exclusion was offered to keep opposition down from the downtown stores and its association.[quote]It will eliminate 90% of the uses of single-use carryout bags….[/quote]Davis already has eliminated 50% voluntarily (see earlier stories re. study vs. Los Angeles).

  16. Don Shor

    [quote]It’s obvious this exclusion was offered to keep opposition down from the downtown stores and its association.[/quote]
    Joe and Brett made that exact point during the discussion.

    [quote]We’ll all be buying plastic bags bags just to take the place of the grocery store bags that we reused.[/quote]
    Since I hadn’t thought this ordinance would apply to our store, I don’t know exactly what we’ll do. Is it still ok to give away second-use plastic bags (that I bring in from Dixon…)? I also pay for and give away trunk liners, which are much much bigger than any plastic bag.

  17. JustSaying

    [quote]” Is it still ok to give away second-use plastic bags (that I bring in from Dixon…)?”[/quote]I hope so. Otherwise, I’ll be shopping in Woodland. (Usually, I’m just there for Costco. But, I can reduce my carbon footprint by buying everything while I’m in the neighborhood.)

  18. medwoman

    GI

    [quote]Medwoman, does your free parking space at the hospital, your company 401k match or retirement benefits, your free healthcare benefits, or any number of things that you might get free through your employment at the hospital effect other people’s cost of getting healthcare at the hospital or clinic where you work? Maybe if you had to pay for those yourself other’s hospital costs would be lower or do you only object to having to pay for someone else’s freebies (plastic bags) when it doesn’t effect you?[/quote]

    It is clear to me from your post that you are not aware of what I would prefer for our economic system.
    I have stated many times that I would prefer an economic system in which everyone received the same amount of compensation for the actual contribution that they make to our society. I am very uncomfortable with an economic system in which the possession of money, regardless of how it is obtained allows huge discrepancies in life style, not just in terms of luxury, but in many cases in whether one has enough to eat, clothing, health care and shelter. It is true that I do work within a system that provides benefits, but I do not pretend that they are “free”.

    You and Jeff seem to be claiming that the plastic bags are “free”. I suggest that most merchants do indeed consider them a cost of doing business and that they compensate for this cost in the same way that they compensate for all other costs, by charging more for some other item.

  19. medwoman

    Frankly

    [quote]medwoman, my mistake. I thought you supported the ordnance. [/quote]

    [quote]I also think that you and other Davis liberals do not respect individual freedom and choice except when it fits snuggly into your narrow constraints of political correctness. Once outside the lines of your worldview, to hell with those that disagree even when there is material harm..
    [/quote]

    Curious putting these two quotes in juxtaposition. It seems to me that you, without any consideration or knowledge of what my position actually is, are willing to decide what I ( and other Davis liberals ) must be thinking.

    Because you believe something to be true does not make it factual. One has only to look around on the streets of Davis and in the trash containers downtown to know that many of these bags are being used one time and then discarded. I have no idea what percentage of bags are used in this way, but I am willing to bet that you don’t know that “factually” either. If so, please state your source and I will stand corrected.

    [quote]But then a Davis Liberal would lack those bragging rights at their save-the-world cocktail parties.[/quote]
    I don’t see how you can believe that this kind of non sensical tripe adds in any way to your arguments. If you are
    talking about the creation of a “partisan divide” I don’t think you have any further to look than at your own
    degrading comments to see where that might be coming from.

  20. jrberg

    Medwoman: I suspect that you, like me, have never been to one of these self serving cocktail parties. Maybe we should organize at least a wine tasting and invite Frank, so he could see how radical us peeps are. Not to mention the bragging rights….

  21. medwoman

    jrberg

    You just made me very sad. I just realized that not only have I never been to a self serving cocktail party, I have never even been invited to one. Do you think you can wrangle an invitation to the next one that Frankly will be attending ? I am guessing that he gets his information by direct observation.

  22. Frankly

    [i]I see a great idea for a Vanguard fundraiser here. Self-serve cocktail party.[/i]

    You mean a hosted bar without a designated bartender? Great idea!

    Since is clear that I ruffled feathers with my colorful partisan language, I think some explanation is justified.

    There was recent Vanguard article and several Enterprise letters lamenting a concern that Davis is falling behind in its progressive agenda. Banning plastic bags is irrational given the true impacts and consequences. There is little effort being put into discussing and designing creative compromise solutions.

    Add these things up and it becomes clear to me that it is not factual environmental concerns motivating the bag-banners. They are driven by identity politics.

    But, they are fantastically skilled at hiding behind a wall of nuanced social-do-gooder arguments and a few convenient pictures of a bag in a tree.

    Hence my comments.

    Somebody needs to blow past the fake objectivity and call it like it is.

  23. Ginger

    [quote]I am very uncomfortable with an economic system in which the possession of money, regardless of how it is obtained allows huge discrepancies in life style, [/quote]

    Soooooo…if we magically enacted a system like that in the United States, every single person in Davis (even the relatively poor ones like me) would have a substantial drop in quality of life. Forget about worldwide, where somewhere around 80% of the world’s population is without safe, clean water and sanitation.

    Since I don’t know you, obviously, I’ll speak to others that I know very well who have made very similar statements.

    I’ve never known any of them to walk the talk. Most of whom I have heard say that make multiples of what my family makes, and yet have never been so [i]uncomfortable[/i] that they voluntarily redistribute the bulk of their own money and just leave enough for themselves to live a modest lifestyle like my own. They have their nice homes, nice cars, nice clothes, nice vacations, nice appliances and electronics, nice book collections, nice artwork, take their nice life enriching classes, etc. Thus when they lament how money creates inequities, when it is SO EASY TO GIVE AWAY to the needy, always comes across as disingenuous.

    That being said, I personally am very comfortable with our system that allows for differences in lifestyle dependent upon money. I work HARD, as does my husband, and sacrifice comfort and luxuries (rent a super small home, only have one car, never vacation and eat out at a diner maybe twice per year) so that we can afford this lifestyle in Davis. We want the superior schools, we want the bike paths, we want the small town charm.

    I much prefer this system than one that has everyone living in mediocrity in the name of fairness.

  24. Ginger

    Oops. Hit submit while previewing…meant to edit more.

    Aaaaanyway. What I wanted to end with was that I prefer this system we have than one that has everyone living in mediocrity in the name of fairness…because first of all, I can’t imagine what kind of a system that would be, except one that allows the government to put a cap on earnings. I don’t know of any instance throughout human history in which such an attempt has been a success; at best it would certainly also put a cap on hard work and ingenuity.

    Secondly, I don’t think we’d all end up living in mediocrity. We’d end up with something far, far short of that…but for some, at least in theory, that is a more comfortable scenario than one in which Davisites can ponder the banning of plastic bags while kids in Chicago live in poverty.

  25. Frankly

    Ginger, I applaud you for your calmness and thoroughness in explaining the other side of this coin. I admit to lacking patience at this point because I have repeated the same over and over again without nary a peep of even acknowledgement of a smidgen of accepted validity.

    This equalitarian impulse is an interesting one because the intentions are noble but means leads to an end that is the most repulsive and most destructive than just about any other rather than militant dictatorship… which by the way is required to prevent the natural pursuits of capable people to result in new disparities in the possession of money. Are Cubans happier? It is hard to tell since they don’t participate in any data collection. The US lands #6 in the OCED better life Index. All top countries in this index are also high in the Heritage economic freedom index (the US ranks #10).

    I find it VERY interesting that there are a large percentage of accomplished academics that hold this egalitarian-collectivist worldview. It is an interesting contrast because 1 – They have been inequitably rewarded with academic credentials for hard work and capability; 2 – In our current global information economy it is more likely that they will be inequitably monetarily rewarded having achieved these academic credentials.

    In my view there is something very sinister going on. I think the impulse is at least partially, if not largely, driven by envy combined with a fundamental desire to reduce the instances of economic competition. 4.0 PHD meet entrepreneur with a C+ GPA 4-year degree who owns the company and will be your boss. This difference in role should not matter since successful intelligence generally does not equal academic intelligence. But I think it does matter to the PHD. He can’t best the entrepreneur in economic achievement, so better work on the other strategy to nibble away at his opportunities and rewards until he is hobbled from being able to earn more.

    Our country, our state and our city all have adopted economic and regulatory policies that work to hobble the private pursuit of economic achievement. At the same time the spigot has been turned on full blast for public-sector rewards… conveniently the industry that academics and liberals tend to prefer.

    So, the PHD is getting his way. He is successful in getting his type of people elected to government, and these politicians have been slowly implementing the egalitarian-collectivist model he prefers. It is a better model for him because he can better compete for economic reward. He can be the wealthy one now, and in his worldview it is fair because he has the academic credentials to prove that he is worthy.

    I don’t see us becoming Cuba any time soon, but as you infer, it might very well turn out much worse if we let the PHD have his way.

    I think the plastic bag issue is largely a symptom of this larger agenda to control private business and to make increasingly difficult to compete and succeed and earn wealth for their owners.

  26. Ginger

    Thanks, Frankly.

    [quote]I admit to lacking patience at this point because I have repeated the same over and over again without nary a peep of even acknowledgement of a smidgen of accepted validity. [/quote]

    It’s how it goes. I’ve noticed I’ve already “closed” a couple of comment threads in my short time here. 🙂

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