Facing the prospect of a transportation crisis and a $1 billion deficit over each of the next two years, you’d think the General Assembly would focus like a laser beam on the budget, the economy, and finding a way to rebuild our crumbling transportation infrastructure.
I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly can walk and chew gum at the same time, but you’d have to wonder if they really have enough to do when you see lawmakers resurrect a relatively trivial concept that has failed to gain traction several times: a ban on plastic shopping bags.
The bill is currently making its way through the Environment Committee, where lawmakers are emboldened by what happen last year in California, which enacted the first statewide ban on the bags, following Hawaii’s lead earlier that year (Westport is the only Connecticut municipality that has its own ban in place).
I’m not opposed to providing disincentives to the use of the bags. They clog landfills or produce toxic fumes when burned in incinerators. And consumers can be careless with them, tossing them out the window and leaving them to the vagaries of the winds that inevitably deposit them on trees or in the ocean where they’re consumed by unsuspecting animals which then die.
A generation ago, much the same could be said about soda pop cans and beer bottles. They were once a plague upon the landscape, tossed freely on roadsides and adding considerably to the amount of garbage municipalities must process. Shards of broken glass put gashes in vehicle tires — and, I know from personal experience, in many an unsuspecting bare foot.
But we did not ban them. We merely provided a disincentive to toss them into the garbage or out the window. Most states, including Connecticut, passed laws requiring retailers to collect a five-cent deposit. Most people reacted by returning the containers to collect the deposit. If those who couldn’t be bothered returning the bottles and cans tossed them out the window, someone would invariably collect them for the modest bounty.
If we must restrict the bags, the bottles-and-cans model strikes me as a much more sensible way to approach the problem. The urge to ban behavior we object to is a strong one. It should be resisted in all but the most serious of cases.
I work in Great Barrington, Mass., which is one of only a handful of towns in the Bay State that banned “thin-film single-use plastic checkout bags” with handles, as the town bylaw passed in 2013 defines them.
Approved by voters at town meeting, Great Barrington’s “plastic bag reduction bylaw” was delayed twice by a matter of several months while town officials worked out the details. At first, shoppers in the town, about 75 percent of whom had been using plastic, were grumpy about the change when it finally took effect, but all seems to be quiet now. For the record, I personally find the ban annoying.
Sometimes I neglect to pack my reusables into the car and am forced to pay a dime for each flimsy rip-prone brown paper bag I need. If I could psychoanalyze myself, I’m sure I’d find that I forget the reusables intentionally. Over the months, they’ve become, based on what I smell and see, seething hotbeds of bacteria.
And no, I’m not imagining things. A 2010 study by the University of Arizona found that the reusables can be “a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half of the bags sampled” in the study. I know. I could put them through the wash, but those 25-cent cloth bags really don’t look like they would hold up very well in my Whirlpool upright.
And the description of plastic supermarket bags as “single-use” has always amused me. I can’t remember the last time I used one of those bags only once. Where else are you going put a kid’s wet bathing suit in at the beach? Before the ban, I used plastic bags to tote my lunch to the newsroom. I used one this morning to carry my street shoes to the office.
But I think it was Gov. Malloy himself who echoed the sentiments of plastic-bag lovers everywhere when he reacted to a question about the proposed ban: “I’m the owner of a couple dogs. I appreciate those plastic bags being around.”
If confronted by a plastic-bag ban passed by both houses of the General Assembly, would Malloy take out his veto pen? If he did, Porcupine Dan would become Plastic Dan. He’d be my hero — for a day at least.