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Bag ban could be law of unintended consequences

2013_COLUMN_DAVY_newOh, Lordy, save us from ourselves.

The well-intentioned bag ban talk is back.

The solons of the city of Encinitas are considering imposing their wisdom on the rest of us by prohibiting stores from giving their shoppers goods in single-use polyethylene bags – all in the spirit of Michael “Big Gulp” Bloomberg, I guess.

Mind you, on a personal-use basis, I am an agnostic on the topic: I’ve got a dozen paper grocery bags in the garage for hauling books to Goodwill or the library sale; a wad of plastic bags – from all sorts of stores – collected for return to the grocery store’s bag recycle bin (I, too, think it is a shame to put a bag in the trash and mourn the “icky bag syndrome” when a bag is too gross to recycle); and, I have at least a dozen reusable bags floating in the back of my Prius.

I really do understand the awful problem of bags in the ocean – trash of any sort fouling the seas is terrible and screams for more recycling efforts. But is the solution really to put another (albeit incrementally small) burden on the poor and an inconvenience on everybody else?

Before going all in on the bag ban, there are some things worth thinking over.

First, plastic grocery bags make up only 0.3 percent of the waste stream going into landfills, according the state’s 2008 study of our trash.

Next, paper is not the environmentally superior product. A paper bag is a whole lot more than a tree: electricity, water (lots of it), chemicals – even when it is recycled it takes a lot to make it.

Plastic mostly comes from oil and takes some power to produce. But a thousand paper bags weighs roughly 10 times the plastic ones, occupies 45 times the volume, takes more than twice the energy to produce and costs at least twice as much.

Plastic bags, which can be recycled over and over again, can be made to be biodegradable.

Reusable plastic bags are still mostly made of plastic – the evil Ole Chemical Companies (who make much of modern life possible) are going to get their share either way.

But most places don’t give reusable bags away, and you’ve got to remember to drag them with you or (as I do) leave a stash in the back of the car.

More troubling is that there is some evidence that there is a significant rise in food-borne illnesses caused by dirty reusable bags. A 2010 joint University of Arizona/Loma Linda University study (apparently paid for by the evil Ole Chemical Companies) of shoppers in Tucson, Ariz., Los Angeles and San Francisco found coliform bacteria, including E. coli, in half of the bags tested.

A year ago, Oregon public health officials traced an outbreak of norovirus in 17 girls on a soccer team to a dirty reusable bag that was used to carry cookies.

Norovirus is usually what’s behind acute gastroenteritis, whose symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. Each year in the U.S., the nasty stuff causes 21 million illnesses that result in some 70,000 hospitalizations and cause 800 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A study by some University of Pennsylvania researchers pointed out that San Francisco’s emergency rooms had a statistically significant spike in E. coli cases that corresponded with that city’s bag ban.

A city health officer criticized the analysis, but the correlation remains. Coincidence or not?

Shoppers haven’t gotten the idea that a dirty bag is bad food-handling practice. Think about it. Are you really going to get all the vulnerable elderly or busy soccer dads to wash the reusable bags?

I doubt it.

And, add all those washings to the environmental impact and the argument gets even weaker.

Just saying, before you go all in for a bag ban, you might want to reconsider those darned unintended consequences.

Kent Davy is the former editor of the daily North County Times. Contact him by email at [email protected].

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Bag ban could be law of unintended consequences