Plastic bags hold a lot of democracy

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comJanuary 14, 2012 

It’s not often that you hear George Washington and his pre-Revolutionary War days in Virginia’s House of Burgesses dropped into a 21st-century government discussion about garbage.

Come to think of it, George and the Burgesses probably didn’t make it into many 20th-century discussions, either, or those of the century before that.

But there they were, being summoned at Wednesday’s meeting of the county waste board by a red-faced speaker whose ancestor served with Washington in the House of Burgesses before George became Father of our Country.

Both Washington and great-great-great Granddad would be whirling furiously in their graves if they heard anyone equate “freedom” with the right to use a plastic bag, Dave Broadwater fumed.

And yet many people did exactly that during an overheated though entertaining donnybrook at which the fate of plastic bags in this county was decided.

Plastic bags lost the argument, as the waste board banned them on an 8-5 vote. But not before scores of people made their opinions known about the new law.

What made the scuffle especially interesting is that the word “freedom” popped up as often as the word “plastic.”

It wasn’t the only thing discussed, by a long shot. Before the four-hour, 85-speaker brouhaha ended, partisans expostulated about the environment, the law, tourism, landfills, jobs, posterity, and personal experience, to name a few topics.

It was, as Washington might have noted approvingly, a free and spirited exchange of ideas.

It was also an instructive — and at times beguiling — look at how the legislative sausage gets made in a milieu where the government invites its citizens to participate.

The outcome was important, true. But the road to that outcome was equally meaningful.

Litter? What litter?

If “plastic” and “freedom” made frequent appearances during the long hearing, so did personal experience.

Some speakers said they didn’t eyeball any plastic bags littering the road on their way to the meeting. Others said they had counted hundreds.

A guy who dives along the coast said he didn’t notice any litter there. A surfer said there are so many plastic bags fouling the sea that he and his fellow wave riders have to tuck them in their wetsuits and carry them back to shore.

Mike Brown of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, which fought the plastic bag ban, said he had driven by the intersection of Price Canyon Road and Highway 227 near the Cold Canyon landfill, and didn’t spot any unseemly leavings.

Landfill operators said plastic bags are not only present, but are a huge problem for them.

In the end, the staggering numbers that have fueled the movement to ban plastic bags were too large to ignore. These folks talk millions and even billions when they describe the number of plastic bags used, the quantity of litter, and the number of wildlife damaged.

On the local level, too many people, including members of the waste board, have participated in Central Coast creek and ocean cleanup days to buy the assertion that plastic bag litter is not a problem.

Many of them had their say Wednesday, and a good many of them spoke eloquently about their legacy to their children, grandchildren, and, in some cases, great-grandchildren. Posterity was central to them, and they said they didn’t want it to include a befouled planet.

Local politics also made its way into the discussion, especially robo calls that were made to county citizens the weekend before the vote. The calls opposed the plastic bag ban, but their secretive and intrusive nature appeared to have backfired with some members of the public and the waste board.

Some irate audience members, many of them from Templeton, vowed to work against the re-election of anyone who voted for the ban. On the other side, Steve Ela of rural Paso Robles told board members to “rediscover your spines,” avoid being “intimidated by a stream of naysayers,” and enact the ban.

Of course (shocker alert!) there were also threats to sue.

There was economic discussion — whether the ban would inconvenience tourists and push them away, or whether it would draw more visitors by keeping the environment pristine.

Health also came up often, with some opponents claiming that the reusable cloth bags that will replace plastic bags will pose a health risk.

The California Grocers Association, county environmental health and many others disputed that. Supervisor Bruce Gibson called the charges “breathless hyperbole” and “misrepresentation of health risks.”

Freedom and tyranny

In the end, though, it was the notion of freedom that seemed to be at the crux of the issue for many citizens.

Freedom, well … it clearly means different things to different people.

Josh Freedman called the new law “tyranny wrapped in environmentalism.” COLAB’s Brown saw it as part of “a constant drumbeat of regulation.”

Richard Kransdorf and others replied that regulation is the price of civilization, and some speakers added that we don’t have the freedom to do many things — running red lights, for example.

Waste board member Phyllis Molnar of Grover Beach cited anti-smog laws that partially cleaned the air in her native Los Angeles as necessary regulations that serve the public good.

Some veterans who opposed the plastic bag ban said they went to war to preserve freedom, including the right to not have government tell them what kind of bag to use at a store.

Other veterans, however, came down in favor of the plastic bag ban — the freedom to go to a store and not have their groceries thrust at them in a plastic bag.

As this “more patriotic than thou” dustup began to gather steam, Broadwater invoked his ancestor and George Washington.

I remember thinking, “You win, Dave. Nobody can top George, Granddad and the House of Burgesses for patriotic dazzle.”

Broadwater clearly took the “my lineage is bigger than your lineage” trophy. His side also won the argument with the waste board about banning plastic bags.

But the county population at large triumphed as well Wednesday. They got to have their say, and they said plenty.

Oh, by the way — they’re not finished. This is far from over. Stay tuned.

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