Ban the Bloody Bag Already!

Dispatches from the Other Summerland

So, when I’m not in Summerland, CA, I’m at what I call the Other Summerland — my wee little house in rural New Zealand. (That “wee” thing is very New Zealand, by the way, borrowed from the many Scots who settled the country. I love it when someone refers to a “wee great” house or piece of pie or whatever; the question then is, is it “wee” or is it “great”?)

The Other Summerland is in Golden Bay, a rural idyll on the northwestern end of the south island. It looks strikingly like Santa Barbara County, with dramatic mountain ranges fronted by coastal valleys, golden beaches, and the ocean ruling it all. Politically, it’s a lot like our county as well, split between farmers (mostly dairy) and vigilant Greenies. I feel right at home, as if I were at a perpetual Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting (only much livelier). Some of my friends are farmers of the old style, multi-generation, keep-government-out-of-my-milking-shed school; some are lefty environmentalists, ex-pats from the developed world with a passion to prevent New Zealand from being ruined by consumer capitalism.

Lee Heller

But, somehow, both sides came together to do what we haven’t been able to do in Santa Barbara: ban the single-use bag. Collingwood, the little town of 200 or so souls that is a few miles from my house, was the first town in New Zealand to go plastic bag-free. If you go shopping in Collingwood at the little grocery or the post office/gift shop next door, you either BYOB — bring your own bag — or you carry your purchases in your naked hands. That’s all there is to it.

Now the little town nearest me in my U.S. Summerland — Carpinteria — has gone the way of Collingwood. A few weeks ago, Carpinteria did the Right Thing and banned single-use bags. What’s more, the city did it by unanimous vote which is pretty amazing when you consider the political diversity of the Carp City Council. So, why the hell can’t Santa Barbara, which has prided itself on its progressive environmental policies, keep up with sleepy Carpinteria and wee Collingwood, New Zealand?

Okay, yes, I know why. Back when we had a more progressive Santa Barbara City Council membership, we also had a business lobby that persuaded the council to try a voluntary, promotion-style approach. They argued that a ban would punish customers and vendors alike, whereas a rewards-based program would help change the culture without imposing a financial burden on anyone. Unfortunately, the voluntary program has fallen flat on its face. Only a few stores have an active program — such as Tri-County Produce, where customers get tickets they can then assign to favorite charities, one for each bag of their own that they bring. (Trader Joe’s used to give out raffle tickets, but it’s been a long time since a cashier there has done more than thank me for doing my own bagging.)

So, not only has the voluntary program been a nonstarter, but of course now we have a council whose majority either does not believe in plastic pollution or doesn’t believe that government should regulate businesses and individuals in their free pursuit of their right to pollute.

It’s one thing to deny climate change — the evidence is still fairly abstract, although at this point it’s irrefutable unless you’re a science denier, too. But plastic bag pollution? The wastefulness of producing — only to dispose of — billions of pieces of nonbiodegradable junk that litters the sides of our roads, clogs recycling machinery, and stuffs our landfills? Seriously?

Further, the idea that going to reusable-only bags is a “burden” is laughable. Even the lowest-income shoppers ought to be able to afford a few reusable bags (many are available for $1). A ban could be phased in gradually to give people time to accumulate reusable bags. So many organizations are interested in promoting their use that it wouldn’t be hard to supply everyone who needs them with free bags.

So, from the clean green quiet of the Other Summerland, I just have to say to the Santa Barbara City Council (whose membership may well change in the near future), isn’t it time for this wee great change?