Grocery shopping had never been one of my favorite activities, but it never used to be as cumbersome as it is now. I'd fill up the cart with food, wait in line at the check-out counter and kibitz with the cashier as the bagger loaded up—and double-bagged—my groceries. Now, the lines are much slower because bagging has become an ordeal thanks to the "Earth-protecting" plastic-bag ban the state had passed a few years ago.
Consider what happens now. Store employees can't simply place your food in the needed bags. They have to ask how many bags shoppers want to buy. "As many as needed," I always say, given that I don't really care if the $150 transaction costs another buck. It's basically just another tax we pay to live in a former paradise. But that's not how it works now. The employees dispense bags parsimoniously. Who can blame cashiers given the guff they might get if they sell someone an unnecessary bag?
Bagging used to be an artform, where baggers carefully separated, say, the eggs from the bottle of Chivas Regal. Now they cram as much stuff as possible in a single bag. Heaven forbid you get stuck behind someone who pulls out a trove of bacteria-laden, reusable sacks. I put the new thick bags they sell right into the garbage, whereas I used to reuse the lightweight "single use" bags to pick up dog poo and line the bathroom waste baskets. Now I have to order those thinner ones online.
This has not improved the environment one iota, even though it has added to our daily annoyance. There always was plenty of evidence to debunk the push for the bag ban. Those bags comprised an infinitesimal portion of the waste stream.
But grocery stores supported it because, well, they can now charge for something they previously gave away. You can always count on a coalition of true believers and profit-seekers—the "Baptists and bootleggers" from Prohibition lore—to unite behind such edicts. And voters, who are easily swayed by uplifting ballot nonsense, rejected a referendum that would have overturned the ban. Those who promote these laws don't view shoppers' inconvenience as a downside. They often view it as a self-healing and education process.
"If we live in an environment that's wounded … it hurts us, chipping away at our health and creating injuries at a physical, psychological, and spiritual level," wrote Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai in a 2011 Huffington Post column. "(I)f we help reclaim or save what is lost…the planet will help us in our self-healing and indeed survival."
I'm not suggesting that California's progressive lawmakers sit around the campfire, venerating crystals and reading poetry about the wounded Earth. But they aren't doing much research before proposing an endless stream of these "let's annoy the public" proposals. They certainly aren't looking at cost-benefit analyses, either. For instance, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed Assembly Bill 1162, which bans larger hotel operators from giving out those little, convenient bottles of shampoo, conditioner and hand lotion.
"The proliferation of plastic waste is having a devastating impact on our environment and overwhelming landfills," said Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D–San Jose), the bill's author. That may be true, but it has virtually nothing to do with hotel guests. "What activists fail to mention is that approximately 60 percent of plastic trash in the ocean comes from just five countries – China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam—which have notoriously inefficient waste management systems," explained Billy Binion in Reason. "America, meanwhile, contributes less than 1 percent."
It would be nice if, for a change, lawmakers who promote these ideas at least wrestled with such rebuttals or with the latest facts. Recycling, for instance, is a great idea—provided there's an actual market for the recyclables. But as the Orange County Register reported in May, a declining percentage of trash is recycled despite all the new recycling mandates the state keeps passing. The article's headline notes that, "Your recyclables are heading to the dump." I pondered that as I stood over a multi-bin recycling center at the airport trying to figure out which portion of my trash should go into which portion of the container.
But at least we can learn about our wastefulness in the process. Regarding shampoo bottles, Kalra argues the ban will "increase consumer awareness of our use of plastic." He essentially admits that a main reason for the law is what this skeptic argued above: to reform and educate us. The California Hotel and Lodging Association supports the measure, but that's not a surprise. Hotels will save money, while the rest of us bring along contraband bottles or use those big dispensers—and hope that no previous guest has tampered with them.
Earth to environmentalists: Improving the environment is a noble calling, but you'll have far more success incentivizing it rather than tormenting us.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.