Saturday, June 9, 2012

Changing the culture: Plastic bags are bad, repeat.

It was the proverbial good news/bad news story out of Toronto City council on June 6th, 2012.

GOOD NEWS: The 44 council members voted to remove the silly 5 cent per plastic bag fee that the previous administration had foisted on retail stores and citizens. The original purpose of the fee was to socially engineer the behavior of Torontonians, away from using so-called "single use" plastic bags toward multiple use bags. It worked, B.F. Skinner would have been proud. But the bag tax, as it came to be known, was a sore point for many. Toronto's Mayor made removal of the bag tax an issue, that he championed, and city council granted his wish. The fee will be removed July 1st, 2012. 

BAD NEWS: But shortly after that win, a motion from a councillor to ban all plastic bags from retail stores passed in a close vote. The ban takes effect on Jan. 1st, 2013, though some believe it will be challenged in court. I hope so.
Arguments for and mostly against the bag ban have raged ever since in the local and even national media. But of course most of the arguments revolved around the environmental issue, unnecessary solid waste, evil plastic, people will get accustomed to the using recyclable bags, blah, blah, blah. Why plastic bags? Why subject this extremely useful item to this type of ridicule? Surely there are far worse environmental menaces lurking in people's garbage? Maybe the household waste of citizens should be searched too? Think of the new jobs created, garbage police, waste watchers. 

Such a search would be an invasion of privacy you say? Of course it would. So why is it that elected officials are concerned with the way people carry home their groceries? Isn't that really a private matter too, between the buyer and seller? That's the real issue, why is a municipal government involved in this? Obviously the City councillors have too much time on their hands, sitting around dreaming up new rules to justify their own existence.

The bags of course have many uses, both visible and invisible. First, they are a courtesy afforded by the retailer silently saying to the customer, "Thanks for coming to my store, please use these bags to convenience your trip home and by the way help give our store some cheap advertising." That is the invisible positive message implied by every buy-sell transaction where a bag is given freely. Perhaps Toronto council likes chasing away business to the surrounding towns? Perhaps Toronto council hopes those surrounding towns will also foolishly adopt this stupid rule too? It boggles the mind.

The visible uses of plastic bags are so numerous, I won't attempt to enumerate them. Suffice to say that everyone I know, has a bag of plastic bags in a closet somewhere in their home. As cheap and flimsy as these bags seem to be, they have multiple lives and everyone knows it. Plastic garbage bags will still be used, and more will need to be purchased if this ban succeeds, and dog owners will need to buy special bags. And of course there is the uniquely Canadian penchant to bagged milk, will that be banned too? Let's all go back to reusable glass, can't wait. 

As I have already suggested, the bags are not really at issue here. What is at issue is a prevailing attitude that people can be controlled to serve the collective good; a "good" that is determined by the wisdom a few through the coercive power of government. What is the proper function of government? That is the issue. Is government there to modify human behaviour - change the culture - or to allow humans to interact freely in a non-coercive environment? I vote for the latter.

Los Angeles also banned bags, displaying the power of mindless celebrity do-gooders. Here is how ReasonTV treated that story. 

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