Burb's Eye View: The rights and the wrongs of plastic bags

I get the default reaction to Burbank's soon-to-be-proposed ban on plastic shopping bags. I understand the warnings of "nanny state" and "Big Brother." This is the right reaction in a democracy where government should fear the people and not the other way around.

What I don't understand is the vehement adherence to this belief regardless of facts, especially on the subject of plastic grocery bags and the multi-angle method around which local groups are trying to reduce plastics' environmental impact.

Last week's community meeting on banning plastic bags was organized by Burbank Green Alliance. Since it was their party, they set the guest list: Speakers from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Save the Bay, an environmental representative from Los Angeles, which has its own ban about to go in effect, and Burbank's recycle center.

Conspicuously absent on the panel: Anyone to present an opposing view. To her credit, Jessica Aldridge, executive director of Burbank Green Alliance, did an excellent job of making sure every audience question was asked — including breaking her own rule of reading only our hand-written questions to give one resident time to speak.

Her argument, I'm paraphrasing, was "What are they going to take away next?"

Other questions contained that same rhetorical flavor — I heard it echoed 10 years ago in New York when smoking was banned in bars. Ultimately, we were better off for it, as we were better off when asbestos and lead paint were banned from buildings.

With smoking bans, it's nice to walk through a restaurant without someone blowing smoke in my face.

That doesn't happen literally, of course. However, "freedom," taken literally, means someone could do that if they wanted. But you have freedom until it impinges on the rights of someone else, and just as we are free to live smoke-face free, we should have the freedom to enjoy the L.A. River without it being lined with old, discarded bags that eventually end up in the ocean.

Aesthetics aside, they are hazardous to animals, pose a suffocation hazard for children and cost a lot of money. Ferris Kawar of the Burbank Recycle Center said between $18 and $30 of annual grocery bills is a cost that's passed to consumers for plastic bag production.

At the recycle center, they wrap around the gears of the sorting machinery, which slows operations and drives up labor costs. Compare that to maybe $4 for a cloth bag made in California. I can buy four every year and still save money.

Burbank's ban doesn't go far enough — plastic bags for meat and produce would still be allowed, and Kawar said they'd still inevitably end up in the gears of the machinery. This is why all plastic bags are supposed to be collected at the store, not thrown into the blue bins.

Let's consider the hygienic qualities of cloth bags — another doubt cast at last week's meeting. If I get too exuberant making meatballs and I get some raw meat on my sleeve, I don't throw away the shirt. I wash it. Same with grocery bags — and if I'm really concerned about contamination, I just replace the bag and still spend less than I would have at the store paying for plastic.

Bagging groceries isn't a right — it's a convenience. As I heard more arguments about rights, I chuckled and wondered what the woman sitting behind me must have thought.

Rosemary Jenkins and I were discussing the topic of rights-versus-privilege while waiting for the meeting to start. In 1975, Jenkins married her sweetheart but just eight years before that, their biracial marriage was illegal in many states. A 1967 Supreme Court ruling deemed anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

I thought about the similar national conversation still taking place after this year's ruling on gay marriage. The right to marry whom you want and the "right" to be given a grocery bag don't really fit together — which is why I don't get the rights/freedoms argument in the context of the bag ban.

Resisting the nanny state is absolutely a conversation worth having. Holding that conversation over plastic bags is not unlike the bags themselves: Thin, flimsy and suffocating.


BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. He can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter: @818NewGuy.

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