My View II: Did City Violate Our Right to Get Free Plastic Bags?

reusable-bagEvery so often I get tickled by things stated in letters to the editor. The recent one complains about “freedoms” being “whittled away.”

In a short but sweet letter the writer opines, “This recent plastic bag ban is taking away our freedom. We should have the right to choose between plastic, paper or own our bags at our local stores. What’s next? Will gasoline be banned at gas stations?”

Clearly, the city council has crossed the line here and in so doing violated the 30th Amendment to the US Constitution, the right to be given plastic bags for free at a grocery store when purchasing food or related items.

That there is no such amendment to the constitution suggests that there is no such freedom and no right to choose between “plastic, paper or (our own) bags” at our local stores just as we don’t have the right to choose between throwing a plastic bag in the garbage or on the street.

So where does that leave us? We have some choices.

There is no plastic bag ban in Davis. What we have is an ordinance that prevents stores from giving out free single use carry out bags. Semantics? No, there is a big difference.

There is nothing preventing people from bringing in their own previously-used plastic bags. There is actually nothing preventing people from ordering their own single-use bags and bringing them to the store.

People do not have the right to be given a bag and communities, just as they have the right to ban litter, can prohibit the distribution of bags by merchants. This has been tested in the courts and has passed their scrutiny.

This is not an issue of rights, there is no right to be given a specific type of bag any more than there is a right to a whole host of other things not covered specifically in the Constitution.

It seems like a silly thing to whine about.

From my own experience, I have learned a lot. First, I learned that I wasted a large number of plastic bags previously. Every time I would go to the grocery store, I would get at least one plastic bag. Now, people tell you that they reuse their bags, but half the time, by the time those flimsy bags got home there were tears and holes in them.

Since July 1, I have not bought reusable bags. I have used a grand total of eight paper bags in nearly two and a half months. Eight. Eighty cents. Could I have done something else with that eighty cents? Perhaps. But that’s not really the point. The bigger point is actually how cheap and easy it is to be more environmentally responsible.

By eliminating stores simply handing you “free” bags, we have to make choices that are conscious about what we need. Ten cents doesn’t make a huge different tagged on to a $50 purchase, but it is just enough to make you have to ponder – okay, is it necessary to have a bag?

The only times I have ended up using bags are when I head to my office and have purchased a number of small items that would be difficult to carry through the locked door and up the stairs.

When I go home from the store, it is easy to put my items from the cart into my trunk – much like one would do at Costco – and into my fridge in the garage. Why would I need to waste bags?

Back to the issue of freedom – it seems like a strange definition of freedom that we have the right somehow to be given something for free. That’s not freedom, that is a privilege, and one that can be taken away.

We do not have the freedom to pollute our planet. That is a misappropriated concept. The Constitution merely prohibits the government from preventing our freedom of speech, religion and assembly – fundamental rights under the Constitution.

As the letter above illustrates, those freedoms remain intact. The Constitution also prevents the state from interfering in our private lives and creates procedures under which our freedoms can be taken away.

We allow the state and local governments, however, to regulate things like litter, pollution, noise, even nuisance. These things are not rights recognized by our government. It is not freedom, but rather a privilege.

Are these the highest of priorities? Some say no. Those tend to be people who oppose the regulations. However, I believe the generation of waste is a priority and we as a community have the capacity to move toward zero waste. Plastic bags are a nuisance to the environment, but they are nuisance that it is fairly easy to do without.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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      1. Frankly

        Death by a thousand cuts.

        And tell that to the homeless dude that no longer can line his shopping cart or bicycle with plastic bags to store his possessions.

        I don’t think we are measuring the actual harm caused.

  1. Tia Will

    “…the right to free healthcare insurance ”

    As the Vanguard’s most outspoken advocate for universal single party payer health care, I have never advocated ( nor has anyone I know of ) for “free health insurance”. I have not even advocated for “free health care” unless you define all of the serves we expect based on citizenship and for which we pay with our taxes to be “free”.

    What I continue to advocate for is that provision of health care be equal in our system to provision of defense by our military, namely the right of all.

  2. Frankly

    Back to the issue of freedom – it seems like a strange definition of freedom that we have the right somehow to be given something for free. That’s not freedom, that is a privilege and one that can be taken away.

    This is a stunning comment from my perspective because it is illustrative of the lack of understanding about what the essence of “freedom” is and should be as defined by the founding documents of this once great country.

    As a store owner I know lack the freedom to provide my customers a free plastic bag to hold the products that they purchased from me. The loss of that freedom is the result of extreme environmentalism and a form of soft tyranny. It is a form of oppression.

    But more importantly, it is absolutely useless in the benefit to society. And that is the much larger consideration and concern… the fact that we can have a minority of people obsessed with something and force a sweeping policy change that has no basis in fact. It is one worldview against others. It is soft bigotry forced upon us.

    In effect and origin, it is not much different than other harder types of bigotry and bias.

    Now Davis liberal progressives can feel good about themselves that they forced everyone to be like them. Filling their unwashed Prius or Burley bike trailers with a dozen or more slightly stinky reusable grocery bags teaming with bacteria waiting to make our family sick, or else be forced to pay $10 for a rip-prone paper bag that has a larger total negative environmental impact.

    But hey, since I am so charitable, I can feel good about the fact that all those Davis liberal progressives are made to feel good about themselves. At least we have that.

    1. Don Shor

      a dozen or more slightly stinky reusable grocery bags teaming with bacteria waiting to make our family sick

      Yes, let’s keep our discussions rational and avoid emotions. [/ sarcasm]

  3. Tia Will


    “I don’t think we are measuring the actual harm caused.”

    So, without resorting to the ” what’s next ” argument, what do you see as the ‘actual harm’ of this ordinance on its own ?

  4. Frankly

    Here is something my number-challenged environmental and social justice obsessed friends don’t understand. It is the numerical market consequences of their policy actions.

    Here is what will happen.

    The left that controls the most populated state in the nation will eventually get their obsession satiated and will ban single-use plastic bags statewide. After that, the demand for reusable bags will skyrocket to the point that producers, most likely from China, will drop the cost due to economies of scale (contact me my markets and number-challenged friends if you need help understanding that), so that people will just discard the “reusable” bags for convenience. Especially after a few reports of people getting sick from the bacteria that forms and lives in bags that are reused.

    Already there are stores selling reusable bags for $.50. What if they go to $.25 or maybe even $.15?

    They will.

    Silly liberal progressives need to take more business and economic classes if they are going to insert their nose into the business of freedom in commerce.

    But then don’t be surprised if the silly liberal progressives force stores to charge more for the bags, and then use the excess as a tax to help fund public sector pensions.

    1. Don Shor

      Already there are stores selling reusable bags for $.50. What if they go to $.25 or maybe even $.15?

      Actually, I’m thinking of having some printed up with our store logo and selling them for $4.99. Or maybe $9.99.

      1. Frankly

        You can do that, and some people will purchase them.

        But when the trash is filled with all those $.15 “reusable” bags you will start to say “what were they thinking!”

    2. Tia Will


      We seem to be crossing posts this morning. Thanks for the elaboration on your point of view.
      Points of disagreement.

      1. “As a store owner I know lack the freedom to provide my customers a free plastic bag to hold the products that they purchased from me. The loss of that freedom is the result of extreme environmentalism and a form of soft tyranny. It is a form of oppression.”

      I am wondering if you do not view essentially all laws that are not related to personal violence, or loss of property as “oppression”. I am interested in your point of view on anti littering laws. Should leaving your trash on the street be a “basic right ” ? How about jay walking , or helmets? After all it is only your own safety that you are putting at risk ? What about speed limits ? After all ,if you don’t want to take the chance of someone running into you, you don’t have to drive on the roads.

      2.Even in this post you talk about the importance of decision making based on fact and then toss in your own completely unsubstantiated hyperbole about other people’s bags making you and your family ill.

      3. “force a sweeping policy change that has no basis in fact. It is one worldview against others. It is soft bigotry forced upon us.”

      Kind of like acquisition of the MRAP prior to any presentation of fact ? I consider the MRAP acquisition as a much greater threat for the possibility of oppression than I do the banning of “free” plastic bag dispensing.

      Hmmm….. I guess hyperbole, oppression, and doing things only to make yourself feel good ( or safe )exists only on the left in your view.

    3. Tia Will


      “Here is what will happen.”
      “They will.”

      What I asked you for was the specific measurable harm that this measure has cost.
      What you gave me were your projections about how things might play out.
      I am still awaiting the measurable harm attributable to this law.

      1. Frankly

        You have taken away another freedom and you have caused greater inconvenience and expense for families. And you have done so for no apparent good reason other than your wiring that makes you want everyone else to be like you because you think your ways are superior and society will become a utopia with enough changes to force everyone else to be like you.

        “you” and “your” in this case is a placeholder for any person that tilts toward more government regulation and greater societal collectivism.

  5. DavisBurns

    We do not have the freedom to pollute our planet. That is a misappropriated concept. The constitution merely prohibits the government from preventing our freedom of speech, religious, and assembly – fundamental rights under the constitution.

    But we have the right to put an end to darkness by polluting the night sky with light all night every night even when people aren’t present. We think of pollution as putting man made materials into our air, the earth and water. Isn’t putting light in the night sky polluting the night sky? We say we use light to prevent crime even though there is no evidence that lighting prevents crime and lots of evidence that criminals appreciate the light we provide. We pollute the night sky for public safety but we can’t define who is made safe and how. We have an innate fear of darkness so we feel safer when we have lights but that’s a feeling not a fact.

    Cars have to have headlights and so do bikes. CalTrans has determined that drivers see better when their headlights illuminate the road and aren’t in competition with other lights. They use reflectors on the roadway and find the reflection of the headlights off the reflectors works better than lighting the road from above. Pay attention next time you’re on the freeway at night. Airplanes also have headlights and airports removed their lights on runways and use reflectors to mark the runways for airplanes. CalTrans uses streetlights to mark exits and entrances, intersections, bridges and overpasses but in a city we light up every single street. So I don’t think the street lights are for cars, and bikes are required to have front and rear lights so I don’t think it’s for them either so what’s left are pedestrians which makes me wonder why we don’t use street lights at intersections and crosswalks and otherwise light sidewalks instead of the entire street.

    Maybe pollution is in the eye of the beholder. I remember the 50’s and 60’s when everyone had to endure people who had the freedom to smoke cigarettes wherever they wanted. Those people lost that freedom to pollute the air others breathed around the turn of the century. Light pollution is the new cigarette smoke.

  6. Anon

    I have to laugh. The reason stores went to plastic bags, was because environmentalists insisted the use of paper bags was environmentally damaging because it killed trees. The very same environmentalists are now insisting plastic bags are unsafe for the environment, but it is okay for stores to sell us paper bags again, provided it is at $.10 a pop. It is just too funny.

    1. Don Shor

      Paper bags cost retailers much more than plastic bags do. I think that’s the reason stores “went to plastic bags.” And they always gave the option. I think you’re blaming environmentalists (always a fun pastime on the Vanguard, apparently) for what was essentially a basic business decision by grocery retailers.

      1. Anon

        No, no, no, the cost of paper bags is not why the country went to plastic bags, Don.

        From “I understand, paper bags are less friendly to the environment …(because they consume trees)…”

        From “Plastic bag ban ‘will kill more trees’ March 25, 2009”

        From “In fact, plastic bags were once thought to be an ecologically friendly alternative to cutting down trees to make paper ones. It takes 14 million trees to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used every year by Americans, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council…”

        1. Don Shor

          Grocery stores wouldn’t have gone over to the single-use plastic bags if they weren’t cheaper. They were invented in the late 1970’s, came into widespread usage by the early 1980’s. It wasn’t primarily for environmental reasons. Biodegradable ones cost more, so they’ve barely come into use — even though they’re biodegradable. Bags that stores don’t charge for are a pretty significant expense — just think about how many they were giving away every day. And now that you’re thinking about that, think about how many they aren’t giving away every day in Davis now.
          It has been incredibly easy to comply with this bag ban. And each time I used to walk out of the store, I had 4 – 5 bags. Clerks would even bag things that had handles, like milk or detergent. No more. Simple. I really don’t know why we’re still arguing about this.

          1. Anon

            We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Based on my research and from what I know, environmentalists pushed for plastic bags to save trees. And now they are taking the absolute opposite stance, and should admit they were wrong – altho as it turns out, they are wrong again. It appears from evidence that the least damage done to the environment is from the use of plastic bags.

          2. Barack Palin

            Totally agree, I also remember the push for plastic as coming from the leftist environmentalists in order to save trees.

          3. Frankly

            Plastic bags are popular because they have greater utility for shoppers. I can carry five bags of groceries in each hand using plastic, and only two using paper because the handles are much less reliable.

            If shoppers didn’t like them it would not matter that the stores get them cheaper because shoppers would complain… and complain they do after this bag ban.

    2. DavisBurns

      Retailers weren’t pressured to offer plastic bags except the profit margin which is the only legit reason business ever do anything, right? Plastic bags used to be thicker, they got thinner because they could still be used but that’s why the baggers doubled them or just put a few things in each one. I personally think the stores save money by not providing plastic bags and that paper bags do not cost retailers 10 cents per bag. Trees are a renewable resource. We aren’t running out of em. Environmentalist never promoted the use of plastic bags. Someone has an environmentalists-are-persecuting-me complex.

      1. Don Shor

        If I bought paper bags from a typical vendor they would cost me 9 cents each, with shipping extra. I assume grocery stores can get a better deal than I can, but I don’t think paper bags are a high profit item for them.

  7. Frankly

    Paper Versus Plastic: Environmental Disadvantages of Each

    When you do get to choose between paper and plastic, don’t let green guilt necessarily pull you toward paper. Consider that both materials have drawbacks for the environment.

    ­Before you brown bag it, consider these environmental disadvantages of paper:

    •Causes pollution: Paper production emits air pollution, specifically 70 percent more pollution than the production of plastic bags [source: Thompson]. According to certain studies, manufacturing paper emits 80 percent more greenhouse gases [source: Lilienfield]. And, consider that making paper uses trees that, instead, could be absorbing carbon dioxide. The paper bag making process also results in 50 times more water pollutants than making plastic bags [source: Thompson].

    •Consumes energy: Even though petroleum goes into making plastic, it turns out that making a paper bag consumes four times as much energy as making a plastic bag, meaning making paper consumes a good deal of fuel [source:].

    •Consumes water: The production of paper bags uses three times the amount of water it takes to make plastic bags [source: Lilienfield].

    •Inefficient recycling: The process of recycling paper can be inefficient — often consuming more fuel than it would take to make a new bag [source: Milstein]. In addition, it takes about 91 percent more energy to recycle a pound of paper than a pound of plastic [source:].

    •Produces waste: According to some measures, paper bags generate 80 percent more solid waste [source: Lilienfield].

    •Biodegrading difficulties: Surprisingly, the EPA has stated that in landfills, paper doesn’t degrade all that much faster than plastics [source: Lilienfield].

    So, again, what is the justification for outlawing stores from having the freedom to choose to offer plastic bags?

    Why would anyone on the side of banning plastic bags believe they are owed one shred of credibility for this and any other “environmental” debate when what they advocate for is proven worse for the environment?

    1. DavisBurns

      Yeah, the disposable diaper industry came out with similar findings 26 years ago when I had my last baby. They said disposables used no more resources than the water used to rinse, wash and dry cloth diapers. Consider the source.

          1. Barack Palin

            Costco deals in large quantities and lots so you aren’t trying to carry or load a bunch of small items which would be a pain in the butt. Everytime I go to Costco I also given a box or two for many of my items.

          2. Frankly

            Actually not. Costco products are pre-packaged. And they give you as many free single-use cardboard boxes that you ask for.

          3. David Greenwald

            Re-used cardboard boxes. Those are boxes that they use to ship products in, not boxes that they bring in to distribute to the public.

  8. Tia Will


    “what is the justification for outlawing stores from having the freedom to choose to offer plastic bags?

    We could eliminate both paper and plastic and use either cloth or our hands. That would be more consistent with environmentalist goals, but I doubt that you will like that either because of your fictional lurking bacteria.

    1. Barack Palin

      “We could eliminate both paper and plastic and use either cloth or our hands. That would be more consistent with environmentalist goals, but I doubt that you will like that either because of your fictional lurking bacteria.”

      Ha ha, I guess there’s no need for doctors to wash up before surgery either.

      1. Tia Will


        We always wash our hands before surgery. No one asks us if we have washed our cloth shopping bags prior to surgery, because that is irrelevant. You have made a good point though. Since you seem to be acknowledging correctly that the bacteria on people’s hands are much more dangerous to us than those potentially on our cloth bags, perhaps would should all have to do a surgical scrub before entering the grocery store.

  9. Napoleon Pig IV

    I don’t care one way or the other about bags, but you are making the classical Porcine argument that rights and freedoms are not legitimate until some group of politicians (usually of the porcine persuasion) sees fit to write their approval on a piece of paper (like a constitutional amendment or some other formal “it’s the law, and if it ain’t the law then it ain’t right” crap). Oink!

  10. Edgar Wai

    About plastic bags, the main question is who should take the responsibility of any damage that plastic bags cost. The difficulty is that there are no easy way to check who disposed a bag and caused damage. One schema to handle this kind of situation, is to ask everyone not to use plastic bags. People who voluntarily opt out become “off the hook” if the responsibility is accounted.

    The manufacturer is responsible for the damage that the manufacturing process causes by making surplus objects. Every time an object is transferred, the responsibility to properly dispose the object also transfers. When the damage is accounted for the improper disposal, unless the person who disposed improperly can be found, everyone who are in a position to dispose the object would share a probabilistic cost, the totality of which sums to the exact amount of the damage.

    The computation of such is similar to computing how much a person needs to pay to buy a non-profit insurance policy based on the risk factors of their situation.

    People who don’t have cars don’t have to buy car insurance.
    People who don’t get plastic bags don’t have to buy plastic bags insurance.

    The accounting would start with the strategy and the cost of the clean up.

    1. Barack Palin

      I pay my gabage pickup fee, that is the cost of my plastic bag cleanup. Why should plastic bags be held accountable to a special cleanup fee when we throw away so many other things that don’t have an extra fee?

      1. Tia Will


        Perhaps the better question would be, what other things can we find to reuse or recycle rather
        than throwing them away ? Perhaps choosing to be less wasteful as individuals as well as a society would be better for us.

  11. Anon


    “Paper, Plastic or Cloth: Which Bag is Best for the Environment?
    Political Calculations | Jun 16, 2012
    Which is the most earth-friendly: paper bags, plastic bags or cloth bags?

    The answer to the question depends upon whether or not you really believe in science, because as they say in certain environmental activist circles, the “science is settled”! Here’s the summary description of the bag found to be the best for the environment, which is defined as being the bag with the least negative impact upon the environment, as found in a very recent and thorough study on the topic:

    The conventional HDPE bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the lightweight bags in eight of the nine impact categories. The bag performed well because it was the lightest bag considered. The lifecycle impact of the bag was dictated by raw material extraction and bag production, with the use of Chinese grid electricity significantly affecting the acidification and ecotoxicity of the bag.

    Yes, the convential High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) (aka “plastic”) bag had the least impact upon the environment of all the bags considered in the study, which considered a number of bags made from different plastics, as well as both paper and cotton-based materials!

    But that’s only considering using each type of bag just once. For many eco-oriented people, the whole point is to reuse other kinds of bags to counteract the perceived environmental hazards posed by the conventional plastic bag.

    Fortunately, the study revealed how many times the alternatives to the conventional plastic bag would have to be reused to overcome their own negative impacts to the environment:

    Table 8.1 The amount of primary use required to take reusable bags below the global warming potential of HDPE bags with and without secondary reuse.
    Here, we find that if a consumer only uses a conventional HDPE plastic bag just once (say to carry their groceries home before throwing the bag away), a paper bag would have to be reused 3 times, a heavy-duty plastic bag made from Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) would have to be used 4 times, a plastic “bag-for-life” made of non-woven Polypropylene (PP) would have to be used 11 times, and a cotton (or canvas) bag would need to be re-used 131 times!

    The study reports that a canvas bag is expected to last for 52 trips (Table A.3.1). With that as a reference, a cotton/cloth canvas bag user does over twice the damage to the environment that a plastic bag using grocery shopper who throws away every plastic bag they get immediately after each shopping trip, as they will likely have to replace their more environmentally-destructive bag at least once long before they reach 131 uses!

    However, if a consumer reuses 100% of their conventional HDPE plastic bags (say as trash bags), the number of uses needed for the other bags to have a lesser environmental impact than the conventional HDPE plastic bag rises by a factor of anywhere from 2.2 to 2.5, which we see in the table above. For example, that re-usable canvas bag would need to be used at least 327 times to be less damaging to the environment!

    Which makes the eco-friendly canvas bag user over six times as destructive to the environment as the conventional consumer who simply re-uses all the plastic bags they get from the grocery store just once.

    If only those anti-plastic bag advocates cared more about the environment….

    Edwards, Chris and Fry, Jonna Meyhoff. Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags. Report SC030148. Environment Agency”

    1. Cecilia Escamilla-Greenwald

      That’s a poor study. They looked at one variable. They failed to look at the issue of number of bags used – how many plastic bags does it take to fill the same number of groceries of a typical canvass bag? How many plastic bags require double-bagging to prevent breakage? How many plastic bags can be reused after tears and use? Not sure how they weigh negative impacts on the environment either. For instance, the chief complaint about plastic bags is that their lightweight make up means many end up flying out as debris and litter and choke water ways. There are a lot of factors here that this study did not consider.

      1. Frankly

        I don’t think any of your points are material in the analysis of environmental impact except for maybe flying out as debris and choking waterways. But then so does paper. And, again, where are these choked up waterways for communities not on the coast?

        They double bag paper too, and a plastic not-single-use (changing the name to be more honest… something I recommend the anti-plastic bag crowd should do to retain credibility) holds as much if not more than a paper bag.

      2. Edgar Wai

        I don’t understand why you say that the number of bags are not included. By showing how many times a tougher bag needed to be used to be environmentally cost effective compared to using a HDPE once, you can calculate whether your own habit supports your usage.

        So, if you are a person that would have used 4 HDPE bags on one shopping trip, and reuse all four of them for bin lining, and switching to canvas bag would only need 1 bag, then you need 327/4 = 81 shopping trips to equal out.

        1. Frankly

          You are comparing cloth to plastic. I am comparing paper to plastic. Remember, you can still get a paper bag for $.10.

          What if the city decided to just charge $.10 for the alternative plastic bag? That would have been a good test of the utility of each. My guess is that the majority of people would still go with the plastic bag.

    1. Tia Will


      I watched the clip on your link. You can certainly tell right off the bat how objective this individual is. Kind of makes me want to accept all of his “facts” at face value having within his first two sentences labelled anyone who has environmental concerns about plastics as an “environmental extremist”.

  12. Tia Will


    I especially feel that this spokesperson for this infomercial from Americans for Progress ( aka the Koch brothers, famous for their completely unbiased stands ) “feels good” about the amount he was paid for making this clip.

    1. South of Davis

      Tia wrote:

      > I especially feel that this spokesperson for this infomercial from
      > Americans for Progress ( aka the Koch brothers…

      How about pointing out something that was factually wrong rather than discounting anything that may be funded by the Koch Brother (earlier this year someone was complaining about a “Koch Brothers funded study by a group that took $1,000 from them 10 years ago). I’m no fan of the uber rich crony capitalist Koch brothers who use their money and power to get even richer, but the reason we are having so many problems is that people like the Koch brothers (and people like Tom Steyer representing the Blue team) keep most of America fighting over plastic bag bans and prayers at High School football games while they bribe (aka make perfectly legal campaign contributions) politicians so they can make billions more money.

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