It was early Sunday morning. I had to swing by the ATM to load up on cash for our weekly farmers' market. The parking lot in my densely populated suburb was eerily empty. A couple of cars. Some guy digging through a dumpster. And some plastic bottles and a paper or two being kicked around by the breeze. Something was missing.
Not people. Not cars. But plastic bags. When was the last time you have traversed a parking lot and not seen a single plastic bag - alight in the wind, caught in a tree, shoved underneath a shrub.
My city banned plastic bags 21 months ago. Since then, our population of rambling plastic bags has steadily declined, even though plastic produce bags are still available in the grocery stores and many packaged foods are sold in plastic bags. There are hardly any floating around our city and last year's coastal clean up yielded far fewer plastic bags than ever.
This is why I was so surprised when a Southern California coastal city, Huntington Beach, recently voted to overturn their plastic bag bag. A key city council member ran on the platform of overturning that ban and had this to say about it: “What’s most harmful to me is that the choice is taken away from the shoppers. I don’t want to trash the ocean. I don’t want to trash the beach. I just want liberty.”
I have to admit - and I'm sure this will put some of you off - that I do not think we need liberty to pollute. I do not think we can just hope people will make the right choice. After all, reusable bags have been an option for eons and yet, it was not until the plastic bag law went into effect (banning plastic bags and charging for paper bags), that use of reusable bags in my county skyrocketed. "The number of shoppers bringing their own bags has increased by 162%. In addition, the number of shoppers hand-carrying their items grew 130%." Even I, long time proponent of reusable bags, used to bring them home from time to time. A cashier would bag them up before I could whip out my canvas bags and that would be that. Or my husband and kids would go to the store and bring home dozens for as many items. Now, plastic shopping bags are simply not available. Sure, I could opt to pay for a paper bag but like the vast majority of my neighbors, I bring my own bags or carry my purchases out in my arms.
The same holds true for water use. California's governor, Jerry Brown, knows this. After pleading with the residents of my state for over a year to "pretty please" conserve water, he called for the first ever mandatory cuts last month. Why force conservation instead of just asking nicely?
Some friends never gave a thought to their water use - even with the drought. They let the tap water run and run and run while washing dishes. They overwatered their lawn. Ran half full loads in the washing machine and dishwasher. And then water rationing hit their municipality. Faced with a fine if they exceeded a certain number of gallons per day, these folks cut back dramatically. They pulled out all kinds of water conservation methods that I had never even thought of - and cut their water use by more than half!
I am all for liberty. But I am also all for living free from pollution. Asking politely, modeling and educating are not enough to keep our oceans clean, our rivers flowing and our climate stable. We need a law for that.