The Problem With Banning Plastic

Susan Page
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Wednesday - March 12, 2008
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A column I wrote a few weeks ago against a Legislature-proposed ban on plastic grocery bags provoked some, let’s say, spirited feedback. All missed my point entirely. So, rather than assume that certain reader viewpoints are so ingrained they fail to even consider a different perspective, I will clarify my position.

First off, I do not hate cloth shopping bags, turtles and other sea life, or the planet. In fact, I love turtles, sea life and our planet. Cloth shopping bags are emotion-neutral for me. Plastic is the same.

What I don’t like are bans. Bans, in general, are antithetical to free will and hostile to the free enterprise system, which, through innovation and creativity of individuals just like you or me, have brought about solutions and cures, elevated art and culture, provided the economic basis from which all benefit and raised the quality of life for human beings in general. Key to the free enterprise system is the right of citizens to make their own choices in the purchasing of goods, selling of their products and their labor.

In most cases, the marketplace corrects any wrongs.

Bans take away personal responsibility, which since the 1960s Great Society has eroded as government assumes more responsibility for and control over our lives.

This year’s political debate clearly divides the country into two groups: one that believes government has all the solutions; the other that believes individuals, allowed the freedom to create, will generate solutions.

Of course, in cases in which children or animals are at risk, legal bans are necessary. Humans were created with intrinsic domain over lesser creatures. Whales and dolphins shouldn’t be slaughtered. Nor should elephants. Children shouldn’t be subjected to cigarette-marketing campaigns.

But the better solution is always for people, educated to the ramifications of their actions, to do the right thing without government intervention. I believe, for the most part, humans want to do the right thing, especially in a society that stands on high moral ground.

Grocery stores, especially here in Hawaii, are small businesses that operate in a highly competitive and costly environment. Major chains like Costco, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and soon Whole Foods voraciously eat into their consumer market. Plastic bags help keep down costs over the far more expensive and unwieldy paper bags, and the new biodegradable bags and are perceived as “added value.” Because they’re so cheap, often two or more are used for less break-through potential.

Do we need a ban? Or do we need to educate our store owners and shoppers?

Plastic shopping bags, invented in the 1970s, are extremely cheap and for nearly 40 years have become reusable, recyclable staples that only in the last seven or eight years have sent up red flags when the EPA reported that more than 500 billion to 1 trillion of them are used worldwide.

Yes, they have found their way into streams and oceans, and have leached some unhealthy chemicals into the environment. It has been reported that turtles and other sea creatures have ingested these bags to their demise.

But this is where the debate gets polluted. Many have a vested interest in registering outlandish and unsubstantiated claims, such as those who make and sell the “other bag,” the “PolyGreen Bio-Oxodegradable,” and those environmental groups who rely on fear-mongering to justify their existence.

Somewhere in the midst of the pro-ban lobby, the plastics industry, which employs thousands worldwide, and grocery stores caught in the middle, there is a solution. It requires a pro-active approach by the state Legislature that takes all issues into consideration. It means exerting leadership by educating the public - without hysteria. Then, since bigbox discount houses have proven that bagless transactions don’t hurt business, other local grocery and convenience stores should follow suit - even using the idea of reusable cloth bags in their marketing. Competition and innovation at work.

Plastic grocery bags have become the poster product of those who believe bans - rather than leadership, an informed public, and business self-correction - will save the planet.

More appropriately, we should demand a statewide recycling program. Recycling programs have been instituted in communities all across the world for years with relative ease.

And, finally, check out all the plastic that’s used in your home, car, world and imagine what banning plastic in general would mean to your life. You

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