The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The California Plastic Bag Ban Kerfuffle

Is This the End of Modern Civilization?

It looks like California has gone and done it. With one stroke of a pen, Governor Jerry Brown has brought about the end of modern civilization. At least that's what some people would like you to believe. And what heinous act has the elected leader of the country's most populous state committed that would bring about such a horrific societal cataclysm? He banned plastic bags, that's what. He coldly, callously, calculatedly killed a colossal convenience cash cow.

SB270 takes effect in July of 2015. Under the measure, single-use plastic bags – like the ones you bring home from the grocery store – will be phased out at large supermarkets and discounters like Walmart and Target. Convenience stores and pharmacies will have until the following summer to get rid of their plastic bags. The ban does not affect the little green bags in the produce department nor does it impact the big shopping bags department stores sometimes hand out. Just the cheap, common, ubiquitous bags that seem to blow across highways like tumbleweeds from one side of the continent to the other.

I live on the other coast, but I can hear the shrieking carried on the west wind from special interest groups already planning massive protests. The outfit that represents plastic bag manufacturers – go figure – is leading the charge, claiming that the move will be disastrous across the board. They're trotting out the old “lost jobs” horse and flogging it mercilessly and by some queer twist of logic, they are predicting dire environmental consequences.

Wait a minute. Back up the garbage truck. You mean the fact that more than 4 billion bags are littered across the landscape or washed out to sea every year does not constitute a dire environmental consequence? That only 7% of the bags produced annually are ever recycled and that the remaining 93% are either blowing around my backyard or piling up in landfills where they will reside unchanged for the next millennium does not have an environmental impact? Come on! Promoting a special interest is one thing. Pandering to our stupidity for the sake of their cupidity is something entirely different. Do they really think the public is so moronic it cannot see through the transparently specious spectacle they are making of themselves?

Tens of thousands of people thrown out of work? Not if the factories retool and make something else. Like reusable bags maybe?

Of course, the whole issue would not be a true kerfuffle without politics. The hue and cry spreading from San Diego to Del Norte bemoans the fact that the new law allows grocers to charge up to ten cents for paper bags. The utter nonsense and intemperate billingsgate being ginned up over a dime is amazing to behold. The new law “would fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets,” fulminates one plastic bag industry hack. It “unfairly penalizes consumers,” cries a rep for the paper bag industry. I think my favorite idiotic argument comes from a man who lives on a fixed income: “It becomes a flat tax on senior citizens.”

I'm a senior citizen. Let me clue you in to a few things. One of the benefits of being around for awhile is an expanded life experience that extends beyond last week. If you are under 40 years of age, you cannot recall life without plastic grocery bags. However, if you've got a few more years under your belt, you can. I was a bag boy in a local grocery store back in the '60s. Guess what? There were no plastic bags. Every order I sacked up went into paper bags. We had big ones, medium-sized ones, small ones, and even itty-bitty ones, depending upon the size and number of items. The bags were sturdy and, if packed properly, held infinitely more than their flimsy plastic successors. And more securely, I might add. Paper bags stood upright in the back seat or trunk and could be clustered together in such a way as to almost guarantee they would remain that way throughout the ride home. Okay, they didn't have handles and you couldn't carry six of them in one hand. But if you packed the bag right – the way every bag boy was taught to do – two paper bags would hold as much product as six plastic ones.

In short, we don't need plastic bags to ensure our survival as a species.

Now, for the guy who's worried about going bankrupt over that dime, let me offer a suggestion: fold up the bag when you get it home and use it next time you go to the store. My mom had a bin in the pantry where the paper bags went to live after they were emptied. We used them for everything. Some of them became trash can liners, some went on to live as storage containers, a few were made into book covers for my schoolbooks, and the rest went back to the grocery store every week. I'd say a good sturdy paper bag made about ten trips back to the store before it got demoted to trash can duty. You may call getting ten uses out of a dime a “flat tax.” I call it a thrifty use of a reusable resource.

An even more thrifty use can be made of reusable canvas or cloth bags. Most stores sell them for under a buck and they last freakin' forever. I've got a few that have been around for ten years. Not a bad return on a dollar, wouldn't you say? They've got handles so you can carry bunches of 'em and when they get a little dirty, take the cardboard bottoms out and toss the bags in the washer. The old bag boy in me has taken time to instruct some of the bagger kids at the supermarket where I shop. One teenage girl elevated me to genius level because I showed her how to frame up the inside of the bag with cereal boxes and then put canned or packaged stuff inside the “walls” formed by the boxes. She had never conceived of such a thing! And she had certainly never been taught how to do it. She immediately passed her newfound knowledge on to her co-workers. When packed properly, canvas bags are equal to or better than paper and infinitely superior to plastic. No matter how you pack them, plastic bags sag, lose cohesive shape, and spill their contents all over the cargo area of your vehicle. Repacking all the bags when you get home gets pretty old pretty quick.

I have a “bag-o-bags” in my pantry. Inside one ginormous insulated bag, (which I use for cold stuff when I shop), I have about twenty reusable canvas bags all neatly folded and awaiting their next use. When I head out to the store, I grab one or two or six or however many I think I'm going to need. And rather than be caught flatfooted and bagless on an impromptu shopping foray, I also keep a half-dozen bags in the trunk of my car.

I went to a store the other day and bought one item about the size of my cellphone. I had not bothered to grab a bag from the trunk because I was just getting one item the size of my cellphone. The young man ringing up my solitary item proceeded to reach for a plastic bag in which to place it. “No, thank you,” I said. “Just give me my receipt and we'll save a plastic tree.” I often do this for small purchases. And sometimes, if I'm making a lot of small purchases at a number of stores, I'll have one or two canvas bags waiting in the car. Into these I will transfer said small items, often putting ten or twenty small purchases in one bag. It makes a lot more sense than accumulating twenty cheap plastic bags for twenty items the size of my cellphone. Don't worry. If you're riding public transportation, they won't charge you any more for one canvas bag than they would for twenty plastic ones and you won't have as much junk to juggle.

Another plus for the “flat tax” worry warts; many of the stores I frequent offer discounts to shoppers who bring their own bags. Usually, it's a nickel. So, let's say you paid a buck for a bag. Twenty uses and it has paid for itself. You call that a tax? I call it a rebate.

Unfortunately, the bottom bottom line for most people these days can be summed up in one word: convenience. If it ain't quick, easy, handy, cheap, free, or otherwise personally advantageous, they ain't gonna do it. Never mind the indisputable fact that plastic bags clog up our landfills. Forget that they turn into floating islands in our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Forgo the notion that they create unsightly litter on a massive scale and often prove hazardous to wildlife. And don't even consider that they are made of – hello? – oil, thereby increasing our reliance on an increasingly unstable and expensive resource. No, you go right ahead and insist on your convenience. And heaven forbid you should have to fork over a dime to help preserve your planet. Hell, you'll be dead in a few years anyway and it won't be your problem anymore.

So, let the American Progressive Bag Alliance – yes, there really is such an entity – proceed with its plan to combat California’s new legislation with a referendum. The law's sponsors rightly believe that the state's citizens will see through the obvious BS and do the right thing by appropriately adapting their behavior. And, as Gov. Brown stated when signing the bill, “We're the first to ban these bags, and we won't be the last.” Looking at the number of communities that have already enacted similar bans and at the growing number of states considering them, I think he's right.

Single-use plastic bags were first foisted off on a creature comfort-driven society in the mid-1970s and that society has since become addicted to them. Paper bags, the whiz-bang convenience items of their day, were introduced in the mid-1800s. Before that, our forebears managed quite nicely with canvas sacks and totes. George and Martha Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Thomas and Martha Jefferson and all their revolutionary friends toted their own sacks to Ye Olde Colonial Grocery Store. If it was good enough for them, why isn't it good enough for us? Let us once again declare our independence from tyranny! The tyranny of cheap, single-use plastic! The time has come, my fellow Americans, to go back to the future!

Seriously, folks. Go out and buy a couple of reusable bags. And then remember to use them. Save a plastic tree.

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