Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bag It!

               The robo call was rather alarming.  A voice warning me that my cloth shopping bag was FULL OF GERMS! And could CONTAMINATE my groceries.  And if the ordinance up for a vote Wednesday was passed we could all die in the streets like dawgs! 
            Turns out the robo calls were by a couple of “Doctors,” who were hired by some vague “coalition” that was opposed to the ordinance that would ban single-use plastic bags and they thought that maybe a little scare campaign would work on SLO Towners. 
            BIG mistake.  As a rule, SLO Towners are a squint-eyed, insulated, suspicious, well-read, smart, tough-minded, dueling-banjo picking backwoods,latte-sipping lot who don’t take kindly to strangers a’comin’ inta their town and trying to tell them what to think or do. And when one of the scary germ guys on the phone turned out to be, not a medical  “Doctor,” but a guy with a doctorate in musical art, well, the Tribune’s editorial staff went into a high dudgeon.  And SLO Towners were left to wonder, “What? So if we use a reusable shopping bag we’re gonna die of a Motzart fugue?  Screaming in agony, crying out, “Too many notes!  Too many notes?”
            And just when you thought you were safe from the long tentacles of national politics, here came Grover Norquist, the wealthy K-Street lobbyist who now has every Republican in the republic bent to his will and safely locked into his blood oath. He sent a letter to Jim Patterson, chairman of the IWMA (Integrated Waste Management Authority), which was holding the hearings and would vote on the issues, knowing that every Republican member of the Board would get copies of the letter and be put on notice as to how they should vote:  Grover had spoken and they would obey.
            And so the stage was set for the SLOTown drama pitting latte-sipping enviros, the grocery industry (Surprising to me, The California Grocers Association endorses the ordinance, primarily because “free” plastic/paper bags cost stores money.), our county waste management dept, against Grover’s Boys, the fear-mongering Germ Squad,  COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business) and “Keep Bags Free,” a group supported by the American Chemistry Council, a lobbying arm of the plastics industry.
            But it soon became clear that the drama in the room during the nearly 4 hours of testimony was really a picture of National Politics writ small:  North vs South, Urban vs Rural, Rich vs Poor, Conservative vs Liberal, Republican vs Democrat, Privitizers vs The Good of the Commons. “Don’t Tread on Me” vs “Regulations are the price we pay for civilization.”
            And one poor woman who identified herself as a health worker who works with fragile, old/young patients and who was growing more unbalanced and hysterical the longer she stood at the podium going on about germs.  Poor woman was clearly getting ramped up into the realm of “Uh-Oh, Call the Sheriff” before she got control of herself and sat down, still highly agitated.
            She was a perfect example of how fear-mongering can affect the already disturbed, although perfectly sane speakers were also going off into the realm of the silly:
             – declaring that people’s reusable bags are so filthy and encrusted with dangerous germs that they will endanger grocery baggers with plague and death, while ignoring a reasonable solution:  grocery baggers are perfectly free to say to customers, “This bag is not safe to pack for either you or me.  You’ll need to pack it yourself or get a new bag.” Problem solved.
            --painting a picture of grocery shoppers so stupid they will just toss dripping salmonella-coated meat packages into their bags with the rutabagas when most people normally put their produce and meat into the plastic produce bags offered (which will still be available), thereby keeping each safely separated from each, just like they do now.
            -- a public so stupid they’re incapable of washing their cloth bags when needed and so unaware that they live and move daily in an environment filled with germs.  And if they compared the germs on their kitchen sponge with even a filthy reusable cloth bag, they would faint and never go into their kitchen again.
            And so it went, speakers waxing into high drama, going all Mel Gibson shrieking, “FREEDOM!  FREEDOM!” Speakers comparing a simple waste management problem to ghastly TYRANNY!  With jack-booted thugs arresting store owners who violate the ordinance, then selling their children to slavers while they rot in prison for life. All of which sparked some one-upsmanship between several Board members, each trying to out-patriot the other, while yet another Board member drolly informed the audience of his famous forebear who was elected to the House of Burgess at the same time George Washington was, and who would roll over in his grave to ever hear “freedom” and “tyranny” being used in reference to use or non-use of a plastic bag
            Well, it was an old, old American argument: balancing individual liberty to do what we will, when we will and damn the consequences versus curbing our reckless selfishness for the sake of the common good. Clearly, compliance on a voluntary basis hasn’t worked; recycling isn’t working well because the plastics industry hasn’t stepped up to the plate on the issue and on a more practical issue, “dirty” plastic bags can’t be used in recycling, plus there’s little market for low-grade recycled bags.  And, not enough people are voluntarily recycling in the first place.  It’s all going into the land fill.
            But several Board members still wanted to redo the ordinance to stress voluntary compliance and “education,” including Board member John Hamon of  Paso Robles. He felt it should all be about education.  But, then he went on to note what a bother the ordinance would be to someone like him, like when his wife now calls him at work and asks him to stop at the store for a few things on the way home and he doesn’t have any bags with him, thereby proving that “education” clearly hadn’t worked on HIM.
            And, like clockwork, County Supervisor Frank Mecham checked in with his usual for-public-consumption blather.  He’s famous for that – statements that sound great, but upon closer examination, are, at best, ingenuous, at worst, fatuous and fake.  But initially sure look good as sound-bites.
             Like, “Let’s put this ordinance to a vote”.  Right.  Thanks to the Robert’s Supreme Court, elections now go, not to what a majority of voters really want, but to the bankrolls of the biggest corporations, the wealthiest players.  Want to guess how much money the plastics industry would spend in this little county to defeat any kind of vote on the issue? And guess how “fair” that vote would really be. 
            Or Mecham’s, “This is a littering problem,” and all that was needed was to enforce littering laws. Which sounded wonderful, but would Frank then vote to raise taxes sky high to hire the thousands of additional police needed to do what he suggested?  Not a chance.  So the result of that suggestion would be, status quo, which is the opposite of what he was supposed to be doing on this Board – managing waste, reducing the waste stream, not maintain the status quo.
            It was pure Mecham.  Play to the crowd with great sounding but ultimately fatuous statements that really translate into, “let’s do nothing but look busy while doing it.”
            Well, like SLOTown’s banning of smoking in public places, this ordinance (going into effect in more and more cities and counties throughout the state) will likely be seen to be “controversial,” until it isn’t and becomes commonplace.  After which everyone will puzzle out why anybody got upset at such a simple change in behavior that’s easily accomplished and one that perhaps can lead to other ways of living that all can cumulative help improve our environment.
            And make no mistake, plastics of all kinds are a serious threat.  Not because single-use bags are going to kill us all, but because all plastics eventually degrade into smaller and smaller particles which then begin to affect the plankton, the base upon which all sea life depends.  Kill off the plankton, choked to death in a lethal soup of miniscule plastic molecules, and you choke the sea to death. And the consequences of that catastrophe on all of us and the generations coming after us is something that warrants action now by all of us. Including Grover Norquist’s clients, the plastic industry, since all those employees, even their CEOs, occupy the same planet as latte-sipping SLOTowners do – a shared fate, the common good.
            By five o’clock it was time to wind up and vote.  One of the Norquist Boys, John Hamon, the Board member representing the city of Paso Robles, the “education” guy who learned nothing, tried to derail the whole thing by calling for a Super Vote (8 versus the simple majority).  But the ploy failed.  Clearly, there was a super majority of Board members who understood that this issue wasn’t about FREEDOM or even the environment: it was a County Waste Management issue, and was an ordinance first created by the County Waste Management Authority itself, in cooperation with all plastic-bag using groups, (business, grocers, enviros, public) in order to reduce (manage) Waste, which was what the board was all about in the first place.
            And so it went, the vote 8 – 5 in favor.  Before the meeting got started, they had to go into closed session to discuss a threatened lawsuit from various opponents.  So the ordinance may be delayed or derailed, as usual. But, if it stays in place, starting in October, every one better start remembering to bring bags to the stores or get dinged 10-cents for paper bags.  Based on other counties/cities that have enacted a similar ordinance, in a very short time, those 10-cent purchases drop precipitously.
            Thereby proving you can teach an old dog new tricks.   


Sewertoons said...

Great article Ann - thanks! While I may like the convenience of plastic bags, I sure can live without them! I'm so sick of driving down LOVR and seeing all the plastic stuck along the fences. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is truly frightening - far more so than the germs on a reusable bag or even the science experiments we harbor on our kitchen sponges.

Churadogs said...

In the large scheme of things, banning single use plastic bags is like rearranging deck chairs on the titanic. If we were serious about saving our world, we'd hire Amory Lovins and make him Czar of America and set him to work redesigning how we make and use things so that waste would become a valuable commodity. Then you'd see the world transformed. But, alas, we're not serious about any of it and don't care what kind of world we leave our children. So we futz around the edges with little no-brainer stuff while the Great Discard continues. Sigh.