Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Give Me Plastic Bags Or Give Me Death?

Our split decision on Monday night to pursue ways to reduce plastic bag use in Ventura apparently struck a cord with some folks. The email responses I’ve gotten since then have ranged from “I’m disappointed in you” to “Don’t you have anything better to do?” to “You’re friggin’ nuts” to “Give me plastic bags or give me death!” As the last comment would suggest, many of these comments seem to have come from self-described Tea Party activists. A lot of the comments were very thoughtful and clearly deserve a response.

First, here’s what happened Monday night: After a proposed statewide law on the issue fell apart, Councilmembers Morehouse and Brennan asked us to approve the idea of having the staff prepare a ban on single-use plastic bags in Ventura. I indicated my support (which I will explain below). Councilmembers Andrews and Monahan and Deputy Mayor Tracy indicated their opposition. Councilmember Weir said she would not support a ban, but would support directing the staff to talk to other cities and agencies and return with some options for how we might reduce single-use plastic bags here in Ventura. That motion passed 4-3. So we didn’t ban plastic bags, nor did we – as many emailers seem to think – approve spending money on some kind of study or other. We asked the staff to come back with options.

A lot of emailers have expressed concern about having their personal freedom taken away through a ban on plastic bags – sort of implying that it is the manifestation of an intrusive “nanny state” approach by the City Council and basically just the latest left-wing enviro-nazi fad.

Let me first say that I’m usually pretty skeptical about buying into the latest environmental fad. Remember a few years ago when the entertainment industry was in a tizzy over the supposedly wasteful long CD covers? I thought that was pretty amusing – here are Hollywood musicians, who consume enormous amounts of electricity recording and playing their music and still use lots of plastic to manufacture and shrink-wrap the CDs, thinking that if only they make shorter boxes the environment will be saved. So I’m not easily taken in by this stuff.

Second, I don’t take imposing regulation on our constituents lightly. A lot of emailers have said that we should allow the consumer and the market to prevail. I agree that the market is a great thing – most of the time the market is right, and we should use the market to deal with our problems whenever we can. But sometimes, the market has a hard time recognizing other, non-economic issues. That’s when the government creates regulation – to protect other things that are important to the common good but that the market isn’t good at dealing with. This might be something as simple as a stop sign or a speed limit (both of which are examples of government regulations that take away our personal freedom) or something as complicated as environmental protection.

There’s no question that plastic bags are cheap and useful. But if they are floating around our town – and, especially, landing in our rivers and our oceans – they can be harmful. Just as important, their presence in our rivers and watercourses can expose our community – and our taxpayers – to the possibility of significant financial fines from the Regional Water Quality Control Board. And that’s the most important reason to think about ways to reduce plastic bag use in Ventura.

The regional water board oversees the implementation of the federal Clean Water Act. Because Ventura is located in a beautiful but environmentally fragile place – along the beach and between two environmentally sensitive rivers – the board keeps a very close eye on us. This costs us a lot of time and it also costs us a lot of money.

Here’s an example: Our wastewater treatment plant discharges water – very clean water – into the estuary at the mouth of the Santa Clara River, near Ventura Harbor. But discharging treated wastewater into an estuary is not typically something that is permitted under the Clean Water Act. So we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year – money that comes from the water and sewer payments you make every other month – proving to the regional board that the water we discharge is really, really clean. Whenever we do have a minor blip and polluted water is accidentally discharged into the estuary, we pay a big fine – thousands of dollars a day. And now, a group of environmental organizations have sued us in an effort to get us to find some other way to discharge the water rather than putting it in the estuary. This lawsuit will cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend and most likely millions to settle.

As I say, this kind of thing is just a fact of life. It’s part of the “cost of doing business” of being Ventura.

Now, the regional water board has instituted a new set of regulations implementing the federal Clean Water Act that seeks to reduce the amount of trash and other pollution in the Ventura River -- to zero. Under the new stormwater permit that affects Ventura and neighboring cities, we are expected to take all reasonable measures necessary to eliminate all trash in the river. If there’s trash in the river, we have to pay fines – with money that will come from our General Fund, meaning we will have less money for police officers and firefighters and park maintenance workers.

And just to give you an example, a couple of weeks ago when volunteers from California Lutheran did the big river-bottom trash cleanout, they came up with more than 12 tons of trash.

In order to cut down on the trash, the City will spend close to $1 million over the next few years putting “trash excluders” on the storm drains – essentially, traps that keep the trash from flowing down the storm drains into the ocean and the river. But trash excluders don’t stop plastic bags from floating around until they land in the river. And plastic bags that get stuck in the trash excluders can interfere with the entire storm drain system by blocking the water from flowing.

In other words, we will face major financial penalties – penalties we would have to pay for with taxpayer funds -- if we don’t eliminate trash in the river. And plastic bags are big part of the problem that are especially difficult to deal with in other ways. That’s why we have to look at ways to reduce their use – including the possibility of banning them.

Now, critics might say that the regional water quality regulators shouldn’t be so hard on us; or shouldn’t focus on trash in the river; or should find other ways to clean up the water. This may be true, but that’s not something we at the city level can do a whole lot about. If we fight or try to ignore these regulations, that’s probably going to cost us far more of your tax money than complying. (This is a lesson the Casitas Municipal Water District has learned the hard way in fighting federal regulators over the installation of a fish ladder farther up the Ventura River to accommodate the now-endangered steelhead trout.)

So, to those who say they are disappointed in me, I say: How disappointed will you be when I come and ask to raise taxes so we can afford to pay all these fines to the Regional Water Quality board? To those who ask if I don’t have anything better to do, I say: I don’t have anything better to do than clean up our environment and conserve our taxpayers’ money in the process. To those who say I’m friggin’ nuts, I say: It would be nuts to pretend that we do not have lots of potential financial liability here.

To those who say, Give me plastic bags or give me death, I say: At least tie your plastic bags up before you throw them into the river so nobody else chokes to death on them. Because if you don’t want regulation, then you’ve got to take individual responsibility for your actions.


  1. GREAT post, Bill! So clear...i love that about you. i generally tend to oppose a BAN on plastic bags (or anything, really) because of what some respondents already indicated: the sense of the "heavy hand" coming "from above" to tell us what we should or shouldn't do. Not that the heavy hand is always wrong, but the feeling of oppression is an important energy to address.

    i also cling to a belief (fantasy?) that we can create stronger, more lasting change if we Citizens become educated about our responsibilities and opportunities and create social campaigns to tackle issues like these. More complicated and time-consuming than a ban? Heck yes, it is! But stronger and more lasting, as i said.

    So i'd love to see what other communities have done to DISCOURAGE single-use bags by using social campaigns and tools like bag taxes (i've heard that paying as little as an extra nickel for each plastic bag you require at checkout can really make people thing twice!).


  2. I applaud the attempt made by certain members of the council to deal with this issue. ANYTHING that citizens and communities can do to reduce pollution should be done. The cries that people "want their plastic bags" echoes the sentiment of years ago "we want our gas guzzling cars" just because we are American. As if that has anything to do with it.

    Responsible and sustainable living in all areas is what responsible citizens should strive for.

    Thank you councilmen Moorehouse, Brennan & you, Fulton for your efforts on our behalf.

  3. Bill,
    As usual, you are the voice of reason. I hope your critics take the time to read your blog because you always have good explanations for your actions.
    Californians Against Waste seems to think the next step is city-by-city actions, but maybe another solution could be a statewide charge for plastic bags, with the money paying for clean-up of the environmental damage done by plastic bags. Perhaps a coalition including the American Chemistry Council (plastics manufacturers) would agree to administer a fund like that, alleviating the concerns of those who see the bag issue as just another effort of bureaucrats to raise taxes and expand government.

  4. I use plastic bags to pick up my dog's "duty" and others' dogs' waste. Laziness and unavailability of plastic bags means poop gets left behind to be washed into the ocean....which is worse?

  5. I think you're an idiot for trying to put all negative comments you received into the lap the Tea party group - rediculous. Secondly, why not use the prisoners in jail as cheap labor to clean up the river bottom instead of installing a million bucks of metal. Those bums need to work for their community. Jail shouldn't be a resort for lounging and doing nothing. They should earn their keep. Also, if you think banning plastic bags is best for the city then have the balls to do it and get it done. Take action and get it done, don't whine about it. For christs sake are you a leader or not?

  6. I reviewed a product that McDonalds now uses for their disposable hamburger containers. Made by a person to be biodegradable. This product does have limited plastic in it and as far as I can see is biodegradable. I know that this is something that can be done, in a very long term basis. But what about a grass roots organization that would begin locally and spread state wide to move the disposable industry to make products recyclable only. No more shrink wrap that is thrown away at the sorting station. No more disposable products, candy bars, gum, etc in wrappers that cannot be recycled. And why not suggest to manufacturers to use recycled products or in the case of a bottle of water I recently saw, it was made with 30% plant based products. 30%, that is huge in our day and age.

    I for one stand behind you Mayor in reducing our plastic bag usage. A ban on plastic bags is not a reduction in civil liberties. Give me a break on that one. Reduce plastic, reduce non-recyclable products and reduce our wasteful habits.

    Congratulations to you and the City Council for starting this process. To bad your constituents are not all in the same boat on this. Please join in the process to begin the reduction of these harmful products.

  7. First, I would not be dismissive of “self-described Tea Party activists” as these are tax-paying residents who genuinely care about their country and Ventura, thus, taking the time to participate in the democratic process and express their opinions.

    Clearly, common sense is not represented by the majority of the City Council, however, I would like to thank the three voices of reason in opposition. This exercise demonstrates how elections have consequences and many, like myself, will remember when it’s time to vote.

    With so many critical issues facing Americans today, how can plastic bags be at the top of our list of priorities?! For example, are you aware that the drug Avastin may no longer be available to patients suffering from breast cancer as a result of Obamacare? I doubt that these individuals and those that have lost their jobs and homes are placing the same importance on plastic bags as city officials.

    You can read the article here:

    Plastic bags serve a variety of purposes in addition to carrying our groceries home. Pet parents use them to keep our parks clean, gardeners use them to maintain our properties and families use them to contain trash in a sanitary manner.

    Why should the majority be inconvenienced due to the irresponsible actions of a few? A solution can be found without throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

    Above all, let’s get a grasp on reality and put things in proper perspective.

  8. In addition to the argument that these bags contribute to the litter that one can witness every single day in our city,I Have witnessed on more than one occasion a seagull entangled in a supermarket plastic bag. It was heartbreaking to see the distress of these birds trying to extricate themselves from these bags. What is so unreasonable about people having to use alternatives to these bags? "Trader Joe's" and even "Pet Smart" offer alternatives for people to use reusable bags. I truly cannot understand what is the big deal?

  9. "For example, are you aware that the drug Avastin may no longer be available to patients suffering from breast cancer as a result of Obamacare"

    Clearly a better representative of the "Tea Party" can be found to speak to common sense. What effect can the mayor of Ventura have on the price of Avastin? Are you not going to vote for Fulton because he isn't working hard enough to fix cancer? Are the other three council members that you speak highly of toiling away in a medical laboratory right now? Should I get a cancer doctor to find a better way to keep the sidewalks clean? Mr. Fulton, no more city council meetings until you have driven the scrounge of restless leg syndrome from our county!

    Please tell me that this isn't a true sampling of the tea party. Otherwise, it comes across as those who understand the least about government (& the role of mayor in running a city) are those who speak the most righteously against it. Wow that is sad.

    Every time I want to blame Mr. Fulton for closing the Wright library I should remember that there are people like the Lisa & the Tea Baggers. Those with the distorted sense of government and reality all condensed into one small Palin loving brain.

    -Andre C.

  10. It seems like much ado about nothing. If the Council feels that banning plastic bags is important to the City then I say put the measure up for a vote. It would not inconvenience me, I try to take my own bags whenever possible anyway. As the blog says, I think the opposition is really more about not wanting government telling us what to do than a desire to use plastic bags. Ban them and be done with it!

    As for the treated wastewater, why not use it to fight seawater intrusion? Or supply it to the local oil fields to be used in tertiary recovery? If the treated water is being sampled regularly the water board should issue a discharge exemption.

  11. An informative and reasoned explanation. I favor moving toward a ban on bags, I just think it will take some time, information and incentives to effect change.

    And for Anonymous (one of them anyway), using your Vons bag to pick up pet waste is still part of the problem. Those bags may get buried but they don't decompose. If Anonymous wants to show personal responsibility, s/he needs to buy some of the biodegradable bags that are made of grain product and degrade in 30 days.

  12. I agree with you Jim and my wife has always been supporting the call to ban plastic is hurting the environment

  13. I appreciate your thoughtful post regarding this issue. I agree with your reasoning. I get the financial liability angle, however, I don't think it is very helpful for you to pass so much blame to the next govt entity - the Regional Water Board. Our community and our state greatly benefits from their water quality standards and from the City striving to comply with them. There are a billion examples of how standards and regulation benefit our community's health and wellbeing. Passing blame does not help us overcome this "govt is bad and oppressive" phenomenon.

  14. Check out my blog post - including the video 'Life of the Plastic Bag' if you are in any doubt as to the seriousness of this problem. Also, search Pacific Garbage Patch. I frequently forget my reusables, but get a buzz when I remember to use them. At the very least there should be a charge for plastic to help people remember.

  15. A wonderfully subtle manifesto pushing back at casual, ill-informed, and sometimes scurrilous charges that do nothing but beg time and energy in defending against them. It's ironic to call legislating the plastic bag issue a waste, since taking stand on the consuming and disposing of plastic bags, to my mind, is not only counterproductive but a diversion from important matters that do need citizen engagement and activism.
    It's suggested here but worth stating that a ban may not be necessary if the market priced in the costs of making and disposing of plastic bags. The key here is to account for the costs we pay indirectly and price the bags accordingly (perhaps ten cents). If you are willing to pay, and plenty of folks who wouldn't otherwise give it a thought wouldn't, you can have your bag. Chances are you'll value it and maybe reuse it.

    Personally I favor a ban to require a change in behavior when the market doesn't function well. For example, in the news recently was a packaged food company that ceased using biodegradable bags for potato chips because consumers thought them too noisy. In the marketplace (literally and figuratively) they voted for quieter bags by changing brands, evidently. Silly, no? (I'd prefer a noisy bag that I knew was biodegradable because I'd feel better after a couple of chips than I might otherwise.)

    To me the situation calls for a mandate on manufacturers. Once we're used to noisy bags and consumer behavior shifts, we won't give another thought to it. Plus, we'll sensibly wind up with biodegradable chip bags for the foodstuff instead of a non-organic substitute. Win-win. The market has an important role to play, but we know it doesn't always price in costs, and even when it does other action may be advisable from a policy perspective, as you say here.

  16. Greetings Mr. Mayor,
    Please allow me to make 2 Points and offer some suggestions.

    1) The above entry is well reasoned argument to consider this kind of ban in our town. However, heavy handed government solutions tend to have unintended consequences. If it impacts Ventura’s struggling business community negatively then the price may exceed regulatory fines. If businesses close, move away, or downsize the lost revenue won’t help the city. All things being equal, it might not affect shopkeepers. But times are tough. Why risk making it tougher? Once a ban is instituted, it is fair to say that it will never be retracted, and the damage it caused will be permanent.

    2) Yes the saintly, Central Coast Regional Water Board issues fees for infractions that cost tax payers a bunch of money and deplete the general fund. That money goes into the Waste Permit Discharge Fund, which, not surprisingly, funds the Central Coast Regional Water Board. So, its probably safe to say, ban, no ban, these people are going to be looking to fine Ventura at every opportunity. It behooves them to do so. I appreciate that the bags may cause the city fines. But cigarette butts will too. You’re not going to ban smoking, are you? What about taco bell wrappers? Could you guarantee that a bag ban would get the water board off your back?

    We know that the science behind the “anti-bag movement” is junk. It was weak enough that even our state legislators shot a state wide ban down. Good for them. But I do understand that even so, the Central Coast Regional Water Board still is engaged in treating a plastic bag in a drain as a chemical spill, and will fine the city anyway. And, I get it, that as city councilmen, all you can reasonable do is pay the fine.

    That’s not good for Ventura. You’re right that people should pay attention, and throw there trash away. But you’re also right that that probably won’t happen or solve our water board problems. I don’t have the answers, but ill give you some suggestions.

    More trash cans. Seems dumb, but look at Disney land. Totally clean and trash cans everywhere.

    A contest: Also, sounds pretty freaking silly. I am talking about a cash prize (small) for the best private sector solution, paid for by the city. This method has show great private sector results. Students thrive at this sort of thing. I would be willing to bet that some kids at Ventura College could come up with some interesting ways to clean up our drains. You can’t appoint a commission or hire a think tank, but you have students right here.

    Hire people: not talking about more city employees. I am suggesting the city hire a private company to inspect and keep Ventura inline with water board regs. Sounds expensive, but I doubt it would cost more that the fines or the state employees who do it now. Who knows, maybe that’s not realistic? Still, I would look into it before issuing a ban.

    See what others Cities do: Somebody, somewhere, must have figured it out. What are cities in Texas or Vermont doing to appease their respective regulators?

    Thanks for reading and have a great holiday season.

    Paul Trotter
    Average Citizen

  17. After reading through these comments I am now more than ever convinced that a bag ban is a terrible idea. If the strongest argument these commentators offer for reducing personal liberty is “give me a freaking break” then I also offer “dude, you give me a freaking break!”

    This issue truly does not matter. Our community will most likely not really feel much effect from this proposed ban. But it is the continuation of a bad practice, and it’s a popular practice. Just this week the disgusting fusion of booze and caffeine will be declared banned on the federal level. LA has famously banned the evils of “Bacon Dogs”.

    Yes, that’s none of this particular Mayors concern. But I implore him to not be that guy. He’s a thoughtful, practical man. So I easily encourage him to look solutions elsewhere and resort to a declamatory ban as a last resort.

    Plus, if plastic bags are banned, what will our homeless use to make all their interesting hats and footwear?

  18. How did we ever survive before plastic bags? We used paper bags, and before that reusable containers. We all need to become more thoughtful consumers, and not just buy and use everything offered us. There are an average of 600 plastic bags used per person each year in California!


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